Salt in the UK tends to make the headlines for one of two
reasons – either we have too much of it, or too
Column inches dedicated to "too much" salt generally refer
to stern official health warnings about the amount of salt in
human diets, while the "too little" reports centre on fears
that the UK might run out of road gritting salt in the depths
of harsh icy winters.
These issues concern different kinds of salt: white salt
produced through vacuum evaporation of brines is the food grade
material (a bracket which also includes sea salt), of which the
public is often told it is consuming too much; rock salt, mined
from underground salt beds, is the de-icing type spread on
According to the UK Salt Association, there is enough salt
in UK mines to last for the next 800 years or so, based on
current production levels. Other than de-icing and food, which
despite being the most frequently discussed end uses only
account for about 8% and 6% of UK salt demand, respectively,
salt’s main markets are industrial chemicals
(about 68% of the market) and water conditioning (12%).
However, its range of applications is vast.
"Salt is one of the most ubiquitous minerals there is,"
Peter Sherratt, secretary general of the Salt Association, told
IM. According to widely quoted estimates,
there are more than 14,000 uses for salt, including plastic,
paper, glass and detergents (as a raw material for making
synthetic soda ash), rubber and fertilisers.
The Salt Association represents the interests of rock salt
and white salt producers in the UK and has been around for
about a century. "We have records dating back to the 1920s and
believe it was formed a few years before that," says Sherratt.
The association’s members include salt miners
– US-headquartered Compass Minerals Inc., Cleveland
Potash Ltd (now owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd) and Irish Salt
Mining Co.; vacuum salt producers, Swiss group Ineos and
British Salt Ltd (now owned by Tata Chemicals Europe); and
distributors Peacock Salt and Wilson Salt Ltd. Collectively,
these companies produce about 99% of the UK’s salt
Sea salt producers, of which there are a handful in the UK,
account for the remaining 1% of domestic salt output, but do
not belong to the Salt Association. "These companies consider
their products to be value-added and distinct from rock salt
and white salt," Sherratt explains. Both white salt and sea
salt are about 99.7% sodium chloride (NaCl). "The only
difference is that sea salt has larger crystals, meaning it
tastes saltier because the flakes last for longer on the
The Salt Association’s main purpose is to
represent the views and objectives of the UK salt industry. It
also ensures that all its members adhere to the letter and
spirit of UK and European Union (EU) competition law. "We are
very deliberate about this," says Sherratt. "We avoid any topic
that could be construed as anti-competitive and have
deliberately stopped conversations on these grounds. We are
very careful to avoid any possible criticism on this
Salt end markets in the UK
Source: Maldon Salt
The UK salt market
According to Sherratt, the salt industry the UK is in a
comfortable state of equilibrium. "The UK market is very much
in balance – it consumes near enough all of the 2-3m
tpa of salt it produces." There is very little import and
export activity because salt is a low value commodity and the
transportation costs make it uneconomical to trade it
internationally. "You get a bit here and there, but for the
most part the industry is domestically self-contained," says
Outside variations in seasonal demand for de-icing salt, the
market is fairly stable. The water softening market is steady,
as is consumption of white salt generally, according Sherratt.
Other applications like salt licks for animals still generate
some demand but these are not growing markets.
Three consecutive cold winters in the UK in 2009, 2010 and
2011 saw panic set in at government level, fanned by alarmist
press reports, that the UK did not have enough de-icing salt to
keep the country’s roads open.
Sherratt says that the situation was exaggerated to some
extent. "Although there were some local shortages, we never
actually ran out of salt – but we came pretty close,"
The reason for the shortages was because local councils had
moved to a "just-in-time" supply system for de-icing salt,
Sherratt explains. "So when a larger quantity than usual was
suddenly needed, they found they couldn’t get
The apparent crisis in rock salt supply served as a wake-up
call to the government and measures are now in place to prevent
future scarcities. "If we have a hard winter this year, we are
not going to run out of salt," Sherratt confidently predicts.
"We have a lot of material in council warehouses and a lot at
the mine heads. We also have greater output from UK salt mines,
which have moved to better efficiency and continuous mining
The government also invested in importing strategic
stockpiles following the spate of hard winters, some of which
were, as Sherratt diplomatically puts it, of "differing
standards" to those adhered to by UK salt producers. This was
one of the driving forces behind the implementation of the Salt
Association’s Salt Assurance Scheme, SaltAS
– a quality guarantee which assures users that their
salt supplies meet all the relevant quality standards for
All UK Salt Association members are certified under SaltAS
and the association hopes that the scheme will spread to
international suppliers to create an international quality
benchmark for salt products.
Perhaps the most controversial issue relating to salt in
recent years has been the question of salt levels in human
diets. The mineral is an essential element in human biology.
Every human cell contains salt, adding up to around 250g in the
average human body. It performs vital functions in digestion
and hydration and salt levels are regulated by the kidneys.
However, an increase in consumption of junk and processed
foods means that average salt intake is on the rise and a
number of studies have linked elevated salt consumption to
conditions such as osteoporosis, kidney disease, vascular
dementia and high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to
heart disease and strokes.
The Salt Association disputes some of the official advice on
salt and points to other studies that question the evidence of
the long-term health benefits of restricting salt in diets.
According to official NHS guidelines, adults in the UK are
advised to limit their salt intake to 6g per day – a
"nonsense statistic", according to Sherratt. "[The 6g figure]
is not based on any agreed credible scientific study and, with
250g swilling about in the body, [which is] designed to
conserve salt when it is in short supply, the idea that a gram
more or less is likely to bring the system to a halt is
difficult to support," he states.
The Salt Association has formally requested that the British
government review some of the science around
salt’s role in human diets. "We are not afraid of
the science and would welcome a genuinely impartial review,"
says Sherratt. However, the most recent official response from
the UK Minister of Public Health, Jane Ellison MP, has been
that the government has not seen anything to change its
guidance on salt intake.
Sherratt concedes that the anti-salt rhetoric has receded
slightly in recent years, however. This, he says, is because
"the public is bored with the subject and increasingly takes
food scares with 'a pinch of salt’".
Collaboration and education
The UK Salt Association works with its counterpart bodies in
Europe (EU Salt) and the US (the US Salt Institute) along with
other relevant industry associations to share technical and
legislative information about the global salt industry and
Aside from its policy objectives, the association also aims
to be a repository of information on salt and works to enhance
education about salt in schools. "We provide information about
its history, how it’s mined and how
it’s used. But our aim here is not to be
contentious. We draw a very deliberate line between our
educational role and our campaigning," Sherratt told
Unlike much of the mining industry, the salt sector is not
suffering from a skills shortage. "We have access to the skills
pool that deepened as a result of the decline in UK coal
mining. Also, the salt industry is fairly paternalistic and
people tend to stay in jobs – there isn’t
a high turnover of staff," says Sherratt.
Away from arguing against diet advice and making sure that
the UK has enough de-icing salt in stock, the
country’s salt industry is facing other hurdles.
Sherratt says that one of the biggest challenges facing UK salt
producers is the growing pressure of EU legislation.
"Regulations affecting our industry range from requirements to
register products according to various usage criteria to
He points to the recent example of the EU Biocides
Regulations 528/2012, which includes substances which did not
fall within the scope of the earlier Biocidal Products
Directive 98/8/C. The new regulations cover in-situ generation
of a biocide, where there is supply of a precursor chemical,
but that precursor is not itself supplied for the purpose of
generating a biocide. Salt, which is not a biocide, is
therefore included under this regulation when it is supplied
for the production of sodium hypochlorite, which is an
ingredient in some biocides.
According to Sherratt, this and similar EU regulatory
requirements place an unsustainable financial and bureaucratic
burden on UK salt businesses. "Some existing suppliers are
likely to be eliminated from the market, not on technical
grounds, but due to the exorbitant cost of registration," he