A salt rush as consumers fear Japanese radiation

Farmers from Fukushima Prefecture and representatives of the regional agricultural association (in red and yellow jackets) try to sell rice and other produce, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, from the prefecture where the troubled nuclear power complex is located as setting up a spot sale store in Tokyo Friday, April 1. They hope to sell the foods exempt from the government’s shipping regulations over radiation-detected foods. The March 11 earthquake off Japan’s northeast coast triggered a tsunami that barreled onshore and disabled the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. (AP Photo)
Seoul, April 4 (AGENCIES): Park Jae-seon, a homemaker from Gwanak District, southwestern Seoul, was surprised when she visited her childhood friend’s home last week. While helping out with the cooking, she opened a pantry to find the entire shelf filled with salt in packages of all shapes and sizes.
“There was bamboo salt, sea salt, salt in larger grains, smaller grains,” she remembered. Hearing from her friend that many homemakers in the area had been in a salt-buying binge, Park rushed out that day to her neighborhood store - to find there was salt to be begged or borrowed.  “The 5.5 kilogram [12.1 pound] and 8 kilogram packages were all gone, and the new shipments won’t come in until next Tuesday,” she said. “No one buys this much salt at this time of the year. The whole thing is very alarming.”
Sales of salt have skyrocketed in Korea as news of radioactive material leaking into the sea outside the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, drive local consumers to shore up their salt supply for fear of contamination.
Prices of some salt have risen to levels matching those found at the height of kimchi-making season.
And sea salt, which has the added advantage of iodine, used to treat humans against thyroid cancer in case of exposure to radiation, has seen its entire back inventory sold within the last 20 days. E-Mart, the largest discount store in Korea, reported yesterday that its sales of salt increased by 130.1 percent on-year between March 15, when news of radiation from Japan began to get alarming, and April 3.
Consumers are trying to secure salt supplies before radiation leaking into the sea in Japan spreads to neighboring countries. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported yesterday that deep seas 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant were found to be contaminated.
As fear of radiation spreads, the demand for sea salt has seen a particular uptick. According to the Korea Salt Manufacture Association (K-Salt), some 20,000 tons of sea salt produced in the South Jeolla area, kept as back inventory from last December and January, completely sold out in the last 20 days.
Sea salt contains iodine, unlike factory-processed refined salt - and is in higher demand by consumers who believe the substance keeps radioactive iodine from accumulating in the thyroid.
Seventy percent of sea salt produced in Korea comes from South Jeolla. This, in turn, has driven up the price of sea salt. Between March and April of last year, a 30 kilogram bag of sea salt cost around 7,000 won ($6.44), as salt is usually in low demand during the spring. However, as of late last month, the same bag cost 13,000 won, an 86 percent increase and matching prices seen during prime kimchi-making season.
But experts warn that the amount of iodine in salt or products like seaweed is not enough to protect against serious doses of radiation.
“Normally, spring is when salt prices go down, but prices are rising rapidly,” said Park Moon-oh of K-Salt. “If such hoarding continues, it could affect future salt prices.”