As Sorn Sopheap fried prawn fritters at her Phnom Penh street stall Sunday, she showed little interest in the experiment performed on the counter.
The salt she cooks with was sprinkled on the glass, and several drops of solution from a UN Children’s Fund tester kit were administered. The salt failed to turn purple. Like most salt in the country, it was noniodized.
“I buy all kinds of salt,” said Sorn Sopheap, 37. “I don’t care if it’s iodized or not.” Most other people “don’t really care” whether salt is iodized, she added.
Sorn Sopheap voiced limited concern after hearing about the health problems caused by using non-iodized rather than iodized salt—widespread mental retardation, still births, miscarriages and, in extreme cases, cretinism. With siblings and customers crowded around her, the dangers were not among her priorities.
“I don’t know about any possible diseases,” Sorn Sopheap said. “I’ll still use the same.”
Among 11 Asian countries, Cambodia has the second-lowest number of households using iodized salt after North Korea, according to Unicef. Only 12 percent of households use iodized salt, the statistics show. This is stunting the country’s social and economic development, health experts warn.
“It threatens [people’s] ability to learn and function as productive citizens in society,” Nyunt Nyunt Yi, head of Unicef’s health and nutrition program, said last week.
Iodine deficiency disorder, which can be avoided by using iodized salt, is the world’s single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation, Unicef says.
A limited amount of iodine can also be found in fish and vegetables, but Cambodia’s widespread malnutrition makes these inaccessible to many, Unicef say.
The government hopes to boost the number of households using iodized salt to 80 percent by 2007. It is an ambitious goal. “[Iodized] salt production is very low,” Nyunt Nyunt Yi said. “At this rate the chances of reaching the goal are not likely.”
After several years in the pipeline, a sub-decree banning the importing and production of noniodized salt was signed Monday by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Ou Kevanna, deputy program manager for nutrition at the Ministry of Health’s national maternal child nutrition center hopes the ban will be effective in one year. But he conceded that Cambodia’s weak legal system and porous borders could prove an impediment. “It is difficult of the Ministry of Health to say” how successful the ban will prove, he said.
Ironically, Cambodia has the capacity to produce all the iodized salt it needs—65,000 tons per year. But by the end of this year, only 20 percent of this amount will have been produced, due to inadequate market demand, Unicef estimates.
Since 1997, 10 iodized salt machines have been donated to private salt producers in Cambodia. Most have been donated by Unicef, said Un Sam Oeurn, Unicef senior nutrition project official. But the machines have not been put to full use, and as many as four of them are broken, he added.
Phnom Penh vendors earlier this week confirmed iodized salt’s unpopularity.
“Noniodized salt is more popular because it has been here for centuries,” said Sok Keang, 35, who sells both iodized and noniodized salt from her stall at Phsar Kandal near the riverfront.
She does not advise her customers to buy iodized salt, which sells for nearly twice the price of the alternative. “I never tell anyone to buy this one or that one,” she said. “It depends on what people want.”
Unicef have been spearheading a campaign to promote iodized salt in Cambodia. They believe this may be a job for James Bond.
On Wednesday, Unicef goodwill ambassador and former film star Sir Roger Moore arrived in Phnom Penh in a bid to boost iodized salt production. On Thursday, he visited salt producers in Kampot province, Cambodia’s salt producing capital, and is also expected to meet King Norodom Sihanouk this evening.
Whether or not Sir Roger’s visit will encourage ordinary Cambodians to buy and use iodized salt remains to be seen. Most Cambodians in Phnom Penh this week had heard of James Bond but only a few had seen a 007 movie.
Sok Keang speculated that most people in the provinces would have heard of James Bond. “I think people will follow” his advice, she predicted.
“I’ve heard [Roger Moore] played 007 and he looks like a great actor,” said one 17 year-old 10th grade student at Sisowath High School, who declined to be named. “I’d don’t know if they will eat [iodized salt] because of him.”