The private sector is once more asking the government to exempt natural sea salt from mandatory salt iodization as the measure has almost wiped out the small-scale salt industry and made the Philippines dependent on imports.
An Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide (ASIN Law), signed into law in 1995 as Republic Act No. 8172, requires all salt manufacturers to iodize food-grade salt for human and animal consumption, with the aim to eliminate Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD) in the country.
IDD has been found to be a leading cause of preventable brain damage and reduced IQ among children, and may also result in stillbirth, miscarriage and congenital abnormalities during pregnancy. Iodine plays a vital role in proper thyroid functioning and brain development.
While with good intentions, the ASIN Law has also seriously affected local sea salt production and exportation. And 27 years after its implementation, this law needs to be reassessed and the persistent challenges it has created have to be faced, the business sector stressed.
Among the unwanted effects is the way it has forced salt farmers without iodization know-how to abandon their means of livelihood and how it has nearly obliterated the local salt production and export sector, it further said.
“We highly support the push to help and empower small-scale sea salt producers in the country. We likewise acknowledge the more than two decades of neglect given to local salt producers after the ASIN law was enacted, particularly the absence of assistance in finding alternative markets and the lack of provision that allows Philippine sea salt producers to tap international markets that do not require salt iodization,” Sergio Ortiz-Luis, Jr., president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc., said in a position letter sent to the Lower House in 2019.
Philippine export of salt in 2020 is estimated at almost US$67,894, down from $190,029 in 2019, according to global open data provider Trend Economy. World export of salt last year exceeded $2.59 billion, indicating a vast potential for Philippine exports.
Meanwhile, salt imports of the Philippines last year amounted to a huge $28.8 million, down from $36 million in 2019, according to Trend Economy figures.
The Export Development Council in 2016 noted that the local salt industry was finding it hard to compete globally because salt producers were restricted from offering a wide array of different salt types. It also said the ASIN Law led to the loss of some nutrients during processing.
According to an article from F&B Report published in 2018: “The inability of the majority of local salt manufacturers to step up to the iodization standards inevitably forced merchants and consumers to import salt from China and Australia, which pass the criteria.”
With the salt industry flattened, the country’s 36,000 kilometers of coastline are underutilized, while innovations and enhancements of salt products grew weak. Exports are being undermined since global markets prefer the natural taste and texture of non-iodized sea salt, according to Kabayan Partylist Representative Ron Salo, who has filed a bill seeking amendments to the ASIN Law.
House Bill (HB) No. 955 seeks to exempt sea salt from mandatory iodization to ensure that small-scale and subsistence producers are not adversely affected by the law.
Salo in his introduction to the bill said: “Heavy importation of salt has also taken its toll on local producers. From being largely a self-sufficient salt producer in the 1990’s, with more than 70% of the annual national salt requirement coming from Bulacan, Pangasinan, Mindoro, Cavite, Parañaque, and other areas, we have become reliant on imported salt.”
He added that “by 2009, we were already importing almost 70% of our annual national salt requirement from Australia alone. From supplying 33% of the nation’s salt needs, Bulacan’s share declined to only 1%. As early as 2003, of the 52 salt farms in Bulacan, 32 have closed. Some salt farmers, such as those in Pangasinan, Mindoro and other coastal areas, are struggling to keep their business.”
HB 955 also provides that the Food and Drug Administration shall maintain a registry of sea salt producers and issue a certificate or authorization to protect them from harassment by local authorities and from allegations of non-compliance with iodization requirements.
Ortiz-Luis, Jr., also Vice Chairman of the Export Development Council (EDC), has expressed the export group’s support for Salo’s bill. However, he suggests that only sea salt that will be exported or used to maintain or enhance the quality of export food products should be exempted from mandatory iodization because iodine deficiency remains a pervasive public health problem in the country.
“If non-iodized salt will be recommended to be available for local market, we can surely expect strong resistance from the Department of Health (DOH) and other health organizations,” he pointed out.
“Since it is still difficult to open the local market for non-iodized Philippine sea salt, we should therefore focus first in getting permission to export Philippine sea salt and to use it for export products,” he added.
Stakeholders have also pointed to studies showing that the Philippines has already achieved adequate iodine status as many people are able to get iodine in their diet from other sources such as fish and dairy products.
However, iodine deficiency is still not completely resolved. One study recommends focusing on pregnant women, lactating women, the elderly and other vulnerable regions and population with poor education and a lower socioeconomic status as a future strategy to eliminate iodine deficiency. The goal, it said, is to raise their awareness through more effective educational and information campaigns.
Salo, for his part, has acknowledged concerns raised that HB 955 is too drastic as it exempts all sea salts from iodization, and he is looking at proposing limiting the exemption only to sea salt sold in local gourmet stores and exported overseas.
HB 955 has been pending with the Committee on Local Government since July 2019.