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Grain of truth

Media and netizens angrily debate whether Chinese salt is safe


Just add potassium ferrocyanide

Tell It Like It Is was the name of the TV talk show that made Cui Yongyuan’s name back in the 1990s and its mantra has defined his life ever since. But can you ever really speak plainly in a country where no one knows how long online postings and articles will last before the censors take them down?

What is certainly true is that whereas official pronouncements are often met with scepticism, many netizens believe everything that Cui says. Today Cui’s weibo has built a huge following across social media. As we wrote in WiC412, it was Cui who recently alleged that stars like Fan Bingbing lower their tax bills with so-called yin-yang contracts (two contracts for the same film, one with a lower amount just for the taxman; for more see this week’s entertainment section).

And Cui has been at it again. His latest broadside follows the publication of an article by a certain “Professor Yu from the Central Party School”. This highlighted the purported dangers of eating local table salt containing potassium ferrocyanide, a form of caking agent.

The article was widely disseminated on social media before the censors removed it. Without identifying who that “Professor Yu” was, it claimed that other countries don’t sell the same salt because it causes kidney and liver damage, and advised pregnant women and children to avoid it altogether.

The arguments were quickly torn apart by the mainstream media. The official website of People’s Daily, for one, quoted a number of experts and reassured the public that potassium ferrocyanide is perfectly safe in the small amounts allowed under Chinese regulations.

Other state-run media outlets then pointed out that a very similar article had already appeared on some internet platforms in June. It was being regurgitated again last month, although this time “Professor Yu” had been inserted as the author to give the content an extra air of authority.

Rather than losing sleep over their salt intake, Fan Zhihong from the China Agricultural University also warned the public that they “need to watch what they’re being fed” on social media, because there are far too many unfounded rumours and many of these have a hidden ‘marketing’ agenda.

Huxiu ran a similar story with photos of foreign salt adverts. These included Saxa Table Salt, a best-seller on Amazon, which even has the words potassium ferrocyanide written on the label.

However, all these rebuttals failed to deter onlookers including Cui, who reposted one comment from a man claiming he has kidney problems because of eating salt with potassium ferrocyanide. Cui also lambasted ThePaper.cn for publishing photos of a US Food and Drug Administration certification document that applied to animals, not humans (unsurprisingly the article was soon taken down by the Xinhua-run website).

As WiC readers are well aware, the Chinese remain hyper alert to even the slightest whisper about adulterated products, given the multiple food scandals of recent decades.

A single operator, China Salt, was brought into being largely because regional producers were cutting costs by selling non-iodised salt (too little iodine can cause goitres, see WiC236). However, as is often the way with medical advice, the view was modified some years later when it was claimed that too much iodine causes thyroid cancer.

China Salt’s monopoly was broken up in 2016. Yet, this just prompted new worries about unscrupulous manufacturers cutting corners by adding cheaper industrial salt to the mix.

Just as toxic in China is the unhealthy mix of online rumour and censorship, that often persuades netizens the truth is being suppressed.

Cui himself has not always been immune to false science. He was famously wrong-footed a few years ago when he flagged serious concerns about the dangers to public health after reading an article entitled “French fries from KFC and McDonalds are found to contain a potential poison called sodium chloride.”

He didn’t realise it was a joke about – yes, you guessed it – salt.

But he remains adamant about the dangers of potassium ferrocyanide this time, pointing out that health conscious Western consumers shun it. “My US friends have been sending me photos of organic foods,” he concludes. “There’s a very clear trend – more and more contain sea salt, which has no additives at all.”

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