Chinese retailers were running out of salt this week following panic buying in the wake of the Japan nuclear crisis, as officials moved to calm public health safety fears on Thursday.
"We have no [salt] left," said an employee who answered the phone at a branch of the Carrefour supermarket chain in the eastern city of Hangzhou. "You should try going to Lianhua because they are limiting the amount [each person can buy]."
The salt was "sold out by [Wednesday] afternoon. As soon as they saw the news broadcasts, everyone went out to buy salt. I couldn't even get any myself," the employee said.
Chinese consumers are stockpiling salt in the mistaken belief that the minute amounts of iodine in it can stop radiation sickness amid alarm about radiation leaking from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power complex severely damaged by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami a week ago.
They are concerned that radiation would spread to China by air and sea, possibly contaminating the land and future food sources. Rumors have also swirled that nuclear radiation has leaked into the sea, compromising the safety of salt taken from the water in the future.
A Hangzhou resident surnamed Xu said people had been rushing to local corner stores and supermarkets to grab any salt they could find, leaving the shelves empty of salt by midday.
"There were rumors that salt could help protect against radiation, so a lot of people got up in the morning to grab salt," he said.
"The shop-owners saw a business opportunity and pushed the price up high," said Xu, adding that a one yuan (15 U.S. cents) bag of salt now cost 10 yuan (U.S.$ 1.50).
"By the time I got there, it had all sold out," he said.
Online ordering system
Authorities in Zhejiang called on the public to remain calm, promising to set up an online ordering system for salt to be distributed 24 hours a day, official media reported.
But local journalists said the mood was still highly anxious.
"I'm not sure that you can mold public opinion in this way," said Zhejiang-based journalist Zan Aizong.
"I think people are just reacting in an irrational way," he said. "There is no salt shortage, so why the panic buying?"
"This is what happens when the government doesn't issue timely information," he said.
Netizens commented online that the panic was in part because ordinary Chinese do not trust the ruling Communist Party to tell the truth.
"When I heard about this it reminded me of the SARS epidemic of 2003," commented netizen Youyi on the popular Tianya forum.
"Back then, we had scenes of people panic buying salt, vinegar, and mung beans," Youyi wrote. "Who would have thought we would see such happenings again playing out in China?"
A netizen surnamed Duan commented: "I think this is a problem of science. We need an expert that people trust to give advice on behalf of the government that has a scientific basis and to give guidance to ordinary people."
"They should tell us whether the Japan radiation is likely to be a serious problem, and if so, what we can do to protect ourselves," Duan wrote.
Japanese helicopters douse fires
As Chinese authorities repeatedly said its citizens face no imminent threat of radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear plant, 620 miles [1,000 km] from the easternmost part of the country, Japanese military helicopters tried to douse fires at the quake-hit atomic complex in a last-ditch effort to stave off a meltdown.
Official media quoted officials as saying that China's seawater, as a source of salt, would not be affected by radioactive leaks.
"It is impossible for radioactive substances to reach China's sea areas via the ocean current," the National Marine Environmental Forecasting Center said in a statement.
It said currents in the Pacific Ocean out from Fukushima were flowing west to east, while China is located to the west of Japan.
It added that China produces more than 80 percent of its salt in inland areas.
China has an annual salt production capacity of more than 80 million tons, but the country's consumption of edible salt was about 8 million tons a year, Xinhua reported.
China's National Nuclear Safety Administration, under the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said the country remained unaffected by the radioactive leaks in Japan based on monitoring tests on Thursday morning.
Beijing's economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, called on local governments to move against panic buying by countering rumors about shortages and hoarding.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.