UK Salt: Too little of a good thing?

By Laura Syrett
Published: Saturday, 26 September 2015

Despite having more than 14,000 uses, media attention given to salt tends to focus on the issues of salt in diets and de-icing applications. Laura Syrett, Acting Editor, spoke to the secretary general of the UK Salt Association, Peter Sherratt, about how the industry is working to bust myths and promote understanding of the industry.

Salt in the UK tends to make the headlines for one of two reasons – either we have too much of it, or too little.

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 roads.

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 output.

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 tongue".

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 point."

Salt end markets in the UK

Salt  

Source: Maldon Salt Co.

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 Sherratt.

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.

De-icing salt

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," he says.

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 enough."

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 practices."

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 designated uses.

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.

Dietary salt

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 promote understanding.

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 IM.

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.

Challenges

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 recycling."

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 says.