KUALA LUMPUR: With three months to meet the new iodised salt rule before the Jan 1 compliance deadline kicks in, small grocers and sundry retailers are replacing their non-iodised stock on the shelves with those that fulfil the requirement of the Ministry of Health.
The ministry had on Sep 25 announced that iodine must be added to all fine salt or salt weighing 20kg and below, after a finding showed that 48.2 per cent of primary school children between eight and 10 years old suffered from iodine deficiency.
In addition, 2.1 per cent of children suffered from goiter, said Health Ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah, while surveys involving pregnant women and school students revealed sub-optimal iodine intake.
The deadline, which was originally Sep 30, has now been postponed to New Year's Day following the grocers' pleas for more time to comply with the new rule.
In general, seafood and seaweed contain iodine, as do enriched bread and dairy products from cheese to milk and yoghurt.
A salt manufacturer told CNA that the requirement is easy to meet, as the iodisation process can be done at local factories. Importers can also simply bring in shipments consisting of iodised stock, he added.
Mr Seow Jun Ze, a partner and business development manager of salt manufacturer Qingli Snd Bhd, said his factory can run several tonnes of salt through its manufacturing setup, assembly line style.
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“The process is tightly controlled as Malaysia’s requirements for iodised salt is between 20 to 40 parts per million (PPM), meaning that for every kilogram of salt, we fortify it with 20 to 40 milligrams of sodium iodide solution, and make sure the solution is spread evenly,” he explained.
He added that in East Malaysia, iodised salt is the norm, as it had been gazetted for sale in both Borneo states for more than a decade.
Salt is a controlled, fast-moving consumer good (FMCG), but it has no price controls, because of its very low price, he said.
Each year, Mr Seow's company imports about 100,000 tonnes of salt from Australia.
“Actually, the packaging and the logistics cost of the salt cost more than the actual item itself,” he noted.
A tonne of raw Australian salt costs about US$50 to purchase from the producer, Mr Seow explained, although the logistics cost of bringing the raw salt over to Malaysia would also have to be factored in.
As for iodine, a kilogram of it, usually in the form of potassium or sodium iodide would cost about RM150 (US$36.10) at international prices.
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"There is a small extra cost to iodising the salt for consumers, but if you calculate the amount of salt you use spread out over a few months of your supply, it's barely noticeable for most consumers," he pointed out.
When the initial announcement was made just five days before the Sep 30 compliance deadline, Mr Seow told CNA that some of his direct clients and those down the supply chain had actually recalled and replaced their stocks with iodised salt virtually overnight.
“They basically incurred extra costs trying to comply with the original deadline, and now it’s pushed back,” he noted.
GRACE PERIOD A RELIEF FOR RETAILERS
For Mr Hong Chee Meng, the president of the Federation of Sundry Goods Merchants Associations of Malaysia, the grace period of three months allows more time for small retailers to bring in more iodised stock.
Mr Hong opined that much more needs to be done on educating Malaysians on the reasons for using iodised salt, like how the Ministry of Health has been educating people about sugar and its dangers.
“And actually, enforcement also needs to go up the chain to the manufacturers’ side too, not just on retailers,” he said.
A hypermarket chain CNA spoke to concurred that the three-month period is more than enough to comply with the new rule.
“Salt is a fast-moving good, and for our chain, we don’t stock a lot, at most about two weeks’ inventory. So for distributors and most mid-sized retailers, three months are more than enough,” Ms Carol Lim, the purchasing director for Checkers Hypermarket, said.
The chain services both retail consumers and other smaller retail stores down the supply line.
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While all sea salt naturally contains some iodine content, these might not meet the necessary dietary limits set by the government, Ms Lim said.
REQUEST TO CONTINUE SELLING ORDINARY SALT
Despite the government’s requirement that all salt sold to consumers be iodised, Ms Lim said there was still demand for uniodised salt.
For instance, thyroid cancer patients need to stay off iodine before and after undergoing radioactive iodine therapy.
There are also question marks over how retailers and importers of artisanal or specialty salts such as the pink Himalayan rock salt might fare after Jan 1.
“They might be worse off because they have no manufacturing recourse to iodise the salt. If they are not able to iodise it, they might not be able to clear their stock (in time), as trade is unpredictable,” Ms Lim explained.
As for the hypermarket chain, Ms Lim said the company would monitor the situation first, although all uniodised stock should be cleared by then.
Mr Hong, the president of the sundry goods merchants federation, said his association have brought up members' request to continue selling both types of salt after Jan 1 in a meeting with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs.
"But there's no official word as yet," he said.