And You Thought They Just Used Soy Sauce …

Keating flags some odd news out of China, which is planning to do away with its 2,600-year-old state monopoly on table salt:

The salt monopoly began during in the Qi state on the Shandong peninsula around the seventh century BC and may have been the first ever state-controlled monopoly. During the third century BC, the Chinese imperial state sold salt at a markup, effectively levying a tax used to pay troops and, perhaps, the early stages of the Great Wall of China.

Several centuries, dynasties, and revolutions later, the world’s oldest monopoly is still in place. Under the policy’s current incarnation, the China National Salt Industry Corp. designates who is authorized to produce salt and is the only entity allowed to sell it to consumers. These consumers often pay three to four times more than what the CNSIC does. The new plan will liberalize the industry and scrap price controls starting in 2016.

Some Chinese netizens, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian observes, are concerned that opening the salt market will just lead to more food safety scandals:

“There will soon be frequent cases of industrial salt” — far cheaper than table salt — “being mixed with edible salt,” went one popular comment on Weibo, China’s huge, Twitter-like microblogging platform. Another userwrote, “Soon the media will be putting out articles called ‘How to tell industrial salt from table salt.'” The topic seemed to resonate; “salt monopoly abolished” became a top-trending hashtag on Weibo, and one related post on CCTV’s official Weibo account quickly garnered over 1,300 comments. One user commented cynically, “I’ve eaten all kinds of fake products; now I will finally have the opportunity to eat fake salt!”

But Austin Ramzy notes that ending the monopoly might actually help fix this problem:

Some scholars have argued that the state monopoly system actually contributed to the phenomenon of tainted salt, and that overhauling the system while enforcing food quality laws should help improve safety. In a 2010 paper, Sun Jin, Fan Zhou and Qin Li of Wuhan University noted that the monopoly meant that the price consumers paid for salt was three to four times higher than the price the China National Salt Industry Corporation paid for salt from authorized producers.

While the average consumer does not feel the price difference because salt makes up such a small portion of a typical grocery bill, the markup supports a vast and pernicious underground market, the authors wrote. Such salt often does not contain iodine and can have harmful impurities, they noted.