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Senators question 1995 law requiring all locally-produced salt to be iodized

Senators on Wednesday questioned Republic Act 8172 or the Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide (ASIN) that requires all locally-produced salt to be iodized, saying this measure has killed the country's salt industry.

In her opening statement, Senate agriculture, food, and agrarian reform committee chairperson Cynthia Villar said the Philippines has produced around 240,000 metric tons of salt annually in the 1960s and the 1970s.

But with the enactment of the ASIN Law in 1995, Villar said instead of promoting the local industry, the measure became a "deterrent" to its development.

Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva also stressed that the Philippines has thousands of kilometers of shorelines but the country is still importing 93% of its total salt requirements.

"Nakakalungkot po ito. Parang sinabi niyo po na yung Iceland nag-iimport ng yelo [This is sad. It's like Iceland is importing ice]," Villanueva said.

"In 2021, our salt exports amounted to only 213,740 US dollars. Meanwhile, Singapore, which has a coastline area of only 193 kilometers or a mere 0.5 percent of our coastline area was able to even export about 21.2 million US dollars' worth of salt in the same year," he added.

Although it is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that issues permits for iodized salt for human consumption, Villar noted that there is no government agency in charge of the entire salt industry in the Philippines.

Villar said it should be the Department of Agriculture that must lead the development of the salt industry as this is considered as a food product.

"Nagtataka ako sa gobyernong ito. Kapag import nagkakagulo kayo kung sino ang in charge pero pag developmental walang gustong umamin sino ang in charge," she said.

"Bakit ikaw ang mag-iimport? Alam mo bang ang sitwasyon ng supply and demand? Do you have a knowledge on the salt industry, FDA? Ano ang basis ng importation?" she asked.

(I wonder about this government. When it comes to importation you are all excited, but when it comes to developmental no one is taking charge. Why do we import salt? Are you aware of the law on supply and demand? Do you have a knowledge on the salt industry, FDA? What's your basis for importation?)

FDA regulation officer Givinia Tuason explained that non-iodized salt is not covered by the FDA, but Villar and Villanueva pointed out that this is considered illegal under ASIN Law.

"Don't qualify pa kasi pina-legislate niyo na lahat ng salt iodized. Kaya when we talk of iodized salt, that's the whole salt industry. So how do you determine the importation?" Villar asked.

Tuason said those who have the certificate of product registration are the ones who are allowed to import iodized salt. Later in the hearing, she said they have no figures on the demand of iodized salt in the Philippines.

Gerard Konghun from Philippine Association of Salt Industry Network (PhilASIN) said imported salt is mostly from Australia and China, but these products are not yet iodized when they enter the country.

"When the salt comes in from Australia, it is not yet iodized, Madam Senator," Konghun said.

At this point, Villar said the policy is nonsense.

"When you pass this law, you demanded the local salt be iodized tapos ngayon mag-iimport kayo ng salt na hindi iodized. Ano ba 'yan? Ano bang malaking kalokohan yan? Eh di sana pinayagan niyo na lang yung local producer na hindi iodized, ni-require niyo na lang na merong manufacturer na mag-iodize kung ganon lang din ang gagawin niyo," Villar said.

(When you passed this law, you demanded that local salt be iodized but then you import salt that are not iodized. That's crazy. You should've allowed local producers to produce non-iodized salt then have a manufacturer iodize it.)

"Why was this law passed? Sino ba ang nag-advise sa Congress na i-pass itong Salt Iodization Law na ito? Sino ang nag-influence sa Congress na i-pass ito? Pinatay nito ang salt industry eh... What insanity is this? This is insanity on the part of the government," she added.

(Why was this law passed? Who advised and influenced Congress to pass this Salt Iodization Law? This law killed the salt industry.)

At the latter part of the hearing, Villar said she is sensing that importers of salt had lobbied for the passage of the law.

Ellen Abella from the National Nutrition Council explained that when the ASIN Law was being crafted, the iodine deficiency in the Philippines was "quite high" and they saw that salt to be the "best vehicle" to address the problem.

Still, Villar said the law should have not prevented the production of non-iodized salt as some farmers are not capable of processing it and not all salt is for human consumption.

The senator said salt is also used as fertilizer by coconut farmers, which the country is also importing as of the moment.

"You want to solve your own problem but you created a bigger problem for the Philippines," Villar said.

Instead of stopping the production of non-iodized salt, Villar said the government should have built a processing center to produce iodized salt.

Villar said there should be a limit on the amount of salt that will be iodized as she cited a study that shows only 32% or one-third of the country's salt demand are for human consumption.

Senator Nancy Binay then raised the possibility of removing the requirement to process raw salt into iodized ones.

She made the suggestion after Abella said only 12% of the children population are currently suffering from iodine deficiency.  —KBK, GMA Integrated News