Iceland Serves Up Road Salt for Dinner

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Iceland is not focusing on falling ash right now. The big issue at the moment is salt. We're not talking about the kind you sprinkle on food. We're talking about the kind you sprinkle on roads to stop your car from sliding around the ice. But maybe we're talking about both. It seems Icelanders have been seasoning their food with industrial, or road, salt for 13 years without realizing it. Thora Arnorsdottir is a news editor at Icelandic National Broadcasting in Reykjavik, and she's been covering the salt scandal.

Thora Arnorsdottir: It's actually a really strange story. There is a brewing company, Egill Skallagrímsson, it's called, has been importing this salt, this industrial salt from a Dutch company called Akzo Nobel, for at least the last 13 years. And they have been selling it as table salt to food manufacturers. And we're not talking to two or three companies; it's around 100 companies that have been buying from them. And in the bills it says table salt, food salt, but when you see the bags and it says in huge block letter "Industrial Salt" and there's a picture of a factory, it's not a picture of a knife and fork, which is usually put on as advertisement for food. So I find it very hard to believe that they had no clue. I mean it's probably cheaper, that's why they bought it.

Werman: Thora, what kind of food products did this industrial salt make its way into?

Arnorsdottir: All kind of food, I mean you know, processed meat products, some fish, even some milk products because they put a tiny little bit of salt in that. I mean bakeries, so it's been in bread, it's been in almost anything imaginable. I mean any kind of food that is made here and uses salt.

Werman: Who discovered this mistake if we can call it a mistake?

Arnorsdottir: Well, apparently it was the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, and what they did is not that they said "Hey, what are you doing, what is this?" immediately. They said, "Oh, you've been using this; well, you might just as well finish the stock and then change the table salt." This obviously caused an outrage.

Werman: Thora, is salt controlled by a single business in Iceland? Is it a monopoly?

Arnorsdottir: No, it's not a monopoly, but I mean this brewer, Egill Skallagrímsson, is a very old and established company, very well trusted. It's one of those old family businesses that you would trust.

Werman: Now, road salt (or ice salt) and table salt, they're both sodium chloride, but why isn't industrial salt safe to eat? And what are the health risks after 13 years of consumption?

Arnorsdottir: Apparently there are no health risks because it turns out yes, there is a tiny little bit more of copper, but nothing that poses a health risk. But the point is that there could have been because industrial salt is produced not for human consumption. So there could've been a lot of harm done and that's the facts. I mean that's what we have to look at. We were lucky enough that in this case it turns out there was no health risk, but how is it possible that a company imports industrial salt that is not produced for human consumption, sells it as table food for years and years, and no one says a word? Not the importer, not the companies that have been buying it. You know, it's kind of shouting at you when you see the bags to tell you the truth, like I described, you have a picture of a factory on the salt bag. So it's incredible, it's just a really bad feeling and it's disrespectful of the consumer. I mean it took days for the company to say we apologize because they thought it wasn't such a big deal.

Werman: Thora, how big is the scandal?

Arnorsdottir: Well, because it hasn't really posed a health risk it's not as big a scandal as it could have been, but it's just the last one in a series of cases where bystanders are discovering that even though we have maybe quite good legislation and regulation, the bodies that are supposed to enforce this, inspect this and make sure that they're followed, they just did not function. We can't trust them. And that's the big scandal.

Werman: Thora Arnorsdottir, a news editor at Icelandic National Broadcasting in Reykjavik. Thank you very much.

Arnorsdottir: Thank you.