Neighbours rub salt in Poland's wounds

By bne IntelliNews March 8, 2012

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Polish regulators investigating the use of road salt in food products have called in EU authorities to help, as countries in the region slapped a ban on imports of Polish salt and warned against the purchase of Polish food products on March 6. In surprisingly "old school" fashion, Poland's government has reacted with an attack against the media and a refusal to release details to the public.

While some Polish regulators have claimed that there is virtually no health risk even though they've yet to finish testing the salt - which is usually used for de-icing roads but has found its way into meat, fish and bakery products manufactured by at least 40 companies - and Agriculture Minister Marek Sawicki accused the media of spreading "panic and fear," the country's Chief Sanitary Inspectorate initially appeared to be taking the issue seriously at least. On March 6, it notified the European Commission's central Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) that it is checking for dangers to health, reports Euractiv.

The regulator also told the Commission that prosecutors commenced legal action in February against three companies that sold industrial salt as salt intended for human consumption. The Commission has asked for regular updates from the Polish authorities, who say they have impounded all of the contaminated products and are analysing samples. The Polish inspectorate confirmed that 555 samples have been taken so far for testing from a range of foods including bread and other bakery products, sauerkraut, pickled onions, a variety of spices, beetroot, horseradish pickles and pickled cucumbers.

The case has been under investigation in Poznan since January, with the focus on five individuals from three companies. "The defendants have not admitted any liability, claiming that they had analytical results confirming that the salt was fit for human consumption," said a spokesman for the Inspectorate. A preliminary list compiled by prosecutors shows that about 40 other companies are linked to the case, and the Inspectorate refused to rule out use of contaminated salt by many more companies.

Polish consumers are reportedly demanding that a list of companies that bought industrial salt for use in food be made public, but prosecutors have refused, claiming such a move could interfere with the ongoing investigation. Only when the accusations are filed in court will such information will be made public, reports Warsaw Business Journal.

However, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that there may be some political pressure at play, with neighbouring countries moving to block potentially contaminated food imports. Agriculture Minister Sawicki has claimed that the media habitually spreads excessive "panic and fear" where food is concerned, reports IAR, and insisted that should the tests came back showing no threat to health, then "the good name of Polish products [will have] been seriously undermined" unjustly.

And hey presto! the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate started playing down suggestions that the salt could prove carcinogenic, and insisting that there are "no serious health risks." Malgorzata Stodolniak, head of the Inspectorate's Department of Food Hygiene and Nutrition in the western Lubuskie region, told Gazeta Wyborcza: "The salt would only pose a threat to health in the case of a large intake."

Some argue a more cautious stance by the Polish authorities would be both wiser and better PR in the long run. The Czech Republic moved quickly - once the story hit the headlines anyway - to put a temporary ban on Polish salt imports on March 6, with Sawicki's counterpart Petr Bendl complaining: "Poland provided too little information on the Polish companies [involved]," whilst Czech food producers have warned consumers against purchasing Polish food products.

The Chief Sanitary Inspectorate has also been careful to point out that regulators "have stopped all products placed on the market that could contain the contaminated salt" and will continue to do so until tests are completed. A spokesman also said that the only exports of the salt as a food ingredient had been traced to a single distributor in Holland.

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