China's salt frenzy leaves aftertaste
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - China last week was hit by a nationwide salt-buying frenzy prompted by Internet rumors that the seasoning could ward off radiation spread by the earthquake-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. While the incident proved short-lived, largely due to prompt government action, there are important lessons to be drawn for Beijing.

Table salt is a very unlikely consumer product to face panic buying in China, the world's number-one producer with annual output of more than 80 million tonnes. With domestic

consumption accounting for just 10% of this figure, the question of how a shortage could be so easily sparked deserves serious attention from both the public and the government.

While the Chinese authorities' reaction was certainly faster than in past crises, it was not quick enough. If the alarm had also caused bank runs, the consequences could have been disastrous.

The buying began last week when Japan's desperate efforts to restore power to the plant seemed to be flagging. Rumors had spread across the web that salt wards off radiation sickness because it contains iodine, and that there would soon be a huge shortage because seawaters would become contaminated by radiation.

By Thursday morning, the panic buying was in full swing. In just a few hours, consumers stripped the shelves and stockrooms of supermarkets and retail stores in the cities. Beijing residents were seen on TV crying with alarm, "There is no salt on sale in the whole city", "We may have to cook without salt."

Consumers who failed to grab salt turned to buying other salty ingredients such as soy sauce. In Nanjing, provincial capital of Jiangsu, some citizens even rushed to buy ducks boiled in salty water, a famous local dish.

Some savvy consumers from Shenzhen and Guangzhou went to Hong Kong to buy salt, prompting panic buying in the city. Both on the mainland and in Hong Kong, people immediately began offering table salt on Internet auction websites, asking for many times the regular price.

In response, a spokesperson with China National Salt Industry Corporation, virtually the state monopoly holder, assured the public that China has sufficient salt reserves.

"Salt companies usually have stocks for at least three months' consumption," he said, adding that production had not been interrupted, but that packaging and transport simply could not keep pace with the panic buying. He promised that the problem could be solved "in days".

Meanwhile, the government had experts enlighten the public with basic scientific knowledge. For one thing, 80% of salt produced in China is onshore mineral salt, only 20% is from seawater. So even if China's sea territories were contaminated by radiation, unlikely as this may be, China would still have a sufficient supply. Moreover, experts from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) dismissed the assertion that eating salt helps absorb iodine. To have the same effect as taking one iodine tablet, a person would have had to eat two to three kilograms of salt.

Another factor that helped bring the buying spree to a quick end was disbelief over the rumors among most young Chinese. Most of those who rushed to buy salt were middle-aged or older housewives, perhaps with raw memories of daily shortages in past decades, while the post-1980 generation is better educated and has lived a much easier life.

Indeed, as panicky older consumers began rushing to buy salt, younger netizens poked fun at them. "If salt can ward off radiation, one should eat salt instead of rice," said one. "If one preserves himself with salt to become a 'salty person', he may no longer need to worry about being contaminated by radiation," said another.

In today's China, it is often hard for a young man to find a wife unless he owns a flat. So some young guy posted: "I don't have a flat. But I have two dozen bags of table salt. If there is a girl worried about nuclear radiation she should contact me and I may consider taking her as my wife!"

In any case, the salt buying frenzy quickly cooled down on Friday. So much so that China's Ministry of Commerce (MOC) announced that as of Saturday, salt inventories were full across the country and sales had dropped substantially. In Beijing, sales on Saturday declined 46% from a day earlier. On Sunday, consumers in Shanghai took bags of salt back to supermarkets asking for a refund. However, they were turned down, with supermarkets citing that foodstuffs cannot be returned unless they have quality issues.

Chinese police quickly started investigating the source of the rumors, with media reporting yesterday that in Hangzhou, provincial capital of Zhejiang. a man named Chen had been arrested for online claims that radiation from Japan had contaminated Shandong province, advising people to store salt and not to eat seafood. He was given a 10-day administrative detention and a fine of 500 yuan (US$76).

While fear of nuclear radiation is human nature, the panic buying could have been as affected by inflation concerns. Chinese consumers, especially older generations who suffered two-digit inflation in late 1980s, would naturally believe that it's better to buy in something - especially something needed in daily life - earlier than later if its price is expected to go up. When they see others begin to buy something, they don't want to be left behind.

It also cannot be ruled out that the rumors were deliberately spread by someone hoping to make a quick profit. In the past couple years, there have been speculative runs on foods such as garlic, green beans, and tea, as well as housing. Indeed, while the panic buying was short-lived, its fast spread and the mass hysteria on display suggests that the Chinese government faces other threats to social stability than that of a "jasmine" revolution.

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