We tend to not pay a lot of attention to salt. Perhaps it’s because we’re an archipelago in the tropics, so sun and seawater, the magic combination that creates salt, is easy to come by.
And yet, despite being an archipelago with many different salt making traditions, the Philippines still ends up importing a majority of its salt.
This didn’t use to be the case. The country used to be almost, if not 100 percent self-sufficient in terms of salt until 1995 when Republic Act No. 8172 or the Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide, popularly known as the ASIN Law, was passed.
Folks will remember the DOH’s super catchy iodized salt commercial that starred child star LA Lopez and then DOH Secretary Juan Flavier that appeared in the mid-90s to bring attention to the issue.
The campaign was highly successful, both in considerably lowering the iodine deficiency in the country, and in creating an ear worm of a jingle that now 40 plus-year-olds will jauntily sing from memory.
Unfortunately, it had an unintended side effect: It displaced a lot of salt farmers. Unable to afford the iodization process for their harvests, many salt farmers had to switch jobs. Selling uniodized salt became illegal and this was heavily enforced at first, though it’s become lax over the years and it’s now easy to buy sea salt in the wet market once again. An industry that could once support 100 percent of the country’s needs was, over the years, reduced to 20 percent.
That’s right. Because of the ASIN Law, the country now imports 80 percent of its salt.
A valued commodity
Salt isn’t just something to flavor bland food. Sea salt is prized by chefs and gourmands because of its distinctive flavor. It also contains trace minerals that are removed during the iodization process.
Salt has become a gourmet commodity, with certain locations gaining popularity because of the kind of salt they produce. Think Himalayan pink and black salts, French fleur de sel, and Hawaiian black salt. Each has a distinct flavour and pairs well with specific dishes, commanding high prices in the market.
The Philippines has its own salt making traditions that can be considered artisanal as well. An example of this is asin tibuok from Bohol: Saltwater is filtered through ashes and left to crystallize in a clay pot, resulting in a compact salt egg that is grated onto food. Guimaras has tultul, salt processed with gata into a block that’s said to contain so much flavor all one needed was to add a bit onto some rice for a delicious meal. Salt from Pangasinan’s salt beds has been slowly gaining popularity overseas because of the flavor it lends to dishes.
We wrote about a FilAm who sells artisanal Philippine salt in the US: https://www.agriculture.com.ph/2020/03/11/second-generation-filam-finds-her-roots-and-makes-money-in-supporting-philippine-sea-salt/
The loss of traditional salt making processes like these don’t just mean a loss of livelihood and income but a loss of a part of Philippine culture. It also means the loss of a potential export product.
The need for revision
There are people who think that it’s about time the ASIN Law was amended to allow the sale of uniodized local salt.
One of its biggest advocates is Kabayan Representative Congressman Ron Salo. He, like the others who advocate for the amendment, believes that consumers should be able to decide for themselves what kind of salt they use. According to advocates, the three groups that will benefit from the amendment will be local salt farmers, consumers, and businesses who use sea salt. What is unsaid was that local cultures stand to gain from the exception as well.
We featured the need for the amendment in agriculture.com.ph: https://www.agriculture.com.ph/2020/03/12/supporting-philippine-sea-salt-production-helps-salt-farmers-and-preserves-culture/
It would be nice if the country’s salt industry were 100 percent self-sufficient once again. The need for iodine in salt need for health reasons need not exclude the demand for uniodized salt or the livelihood of local salt farmers.