Fears over Japan's continuing nuclear crisis fuelled a salt-buying frenzy across China as shoppers raced to stock up on the basis of wild rumours and speculation.
The craze began over the erroneous belief that salt and the iodine in it is a defence against the radiation emanating from the Japanese power station. Shelves were emptied in supermarkets and corner shops from the capital to Guangzhou in a mad scramble for uncontaminated condiments. And when salt sold out, some crazed consumers started grabbing bottles of soy sauce by the armful.
'Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear plant blasted, salt can never be eaten any more,' cried one woman as shoppers fought over supplies in a Beijing supermarket yesterday morning.
The mania even spread to Hong Kong - usually less prone to panic buying - where the spike in demand led to retailers charging as much as 10 times the normal price.
The National Development and Reform Commission called on market supervisory authorities nationwide yesterday afternoon to step up vigilance on salt vendors to prevent price manipulators or speculators taking advantage of the situation.
Officials in Hong Kong and in main mainland cities issued public statements trying to refute concerns about radiation poisoning and the need to stockpile salt. But the official reassurances appeared to do little to put shoppers' minds at ease.
'I heard an announcement on the lunchtime news saying there was nothing to worry about and that salt wouldn't be affected by radiation from the Japanese power station,' said one housewife in a Dia supermarket in downtown Shanghai.
'I hadn't heard about the salt shortage until then, but as soon as I heard it, I raced out to get some. I only have a small amount left in the kitchen, and I just don't know how I'll cook if I run out. I have been to several shops already, but no one has any left. I am getting quite nervous now because I think I am too late.'
Staff expressed bewilderment and were at a loss to explain the sudden sprint to buy salt. 'We sold out of salt early this morning. I have been working for this company for years, and this is the first time I have heard of any store running out of salt,' the stock manager said.
As he spoke, a wide-eyed elderly woman grasped his elbow.
'What time will you be open tomorrow?' she asked. 'Will there be more salt in the shop by then?'
The China National Salt Industry Corporation posted a statement on its website saying it was releasing national and provincial level salt reserves in response to the panic buying, and emergency supplies would be distributed within 24 hours.
In Hong Kong, shoppers also descended into a state of hysteria for salt, with people snapping up salt from Sheung Shui to North Point, and from Tuen Mun to Kwun Tong.
Hundreds of people, mostly elderly, lined up outside condiment shops and in supermarkets from early morning, even though salt was being sold at between two and 10 times its usual price.
An elderly woman said she had queued for half an hour. 'I don't know what the salt can be used for. But people are snatching, so I'd better hurry,' she said.
In Tai Po, the owner of a Hung Chun condiment store had been busy since 8am.
'Normally I sell only two big bags of salt a day. Today I have sold more than 30 already,' he said.
The wholesale price of a 50kg bag had soared, and so he had to put up prices accordingly, he said.
Some people also started auctioning salt online. A 450g packet of table salt, normally priced at HK$2, was being offered at HK$30.
Salt sold in China normally contains small amounts of iodine compounds, which triggered rumours that ingesting salt could help ward off the effects of radiation. Emergency workers near the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan have been taking potassium iodide tablets to lessen the impact of radiation poisoning.
Hong Kong Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok urged people to calm down and use their common sense.
'Eating too much salt can cause hypertension and kidney disease,' he said. 'I think buying large quantities of salt for whatever reason is totally unfounded.'
It was 'scientifically and medically unfounded' that the iodine in salt could protect people from radiation.
Undersecretary for Food and Health Professor Gabriel Leung said a person would need to eat 5kg of salt to absorb the amount of iodine contained in an iodine tablet.
Iodine tablets were not intended for the public, he said; they were only useful if people took them four to five hours before entering nuclear facilities with high levels of radiation.
In Guangdong, a spokesman for the province's salt monitoring bureau told a press conference the country had an ample supply of salt, but he admitted shortages existed because 'consumption was too much in a very short time'.
On an average day, Guangzhou needed just 180 to 200 tonnes of salt, but retailers sold more than 500 tonnes on Wednesday afternoon. And the frenzy continued yesterday.
The supermarket of the Friendship Store in Taojin, a long-standing outlet for high-end imported goods favoured by middle-class shoppers, sold its entire year's supply of salt by 11am yesterday.
Notices with newspaper cuttings were posted around the supermarket warning customers not to fall for scammers selling fake salt.
Many customers frantically queued up out of curiosity, but most said they were unsure whether salt could really protect them from radiation. 'Why is it so intense?' one customer asked. 'It's just salt, right?'
Will Clem and Alice Yan in Shanghai, Laura Zhou in Beijing, Ng Yuk-hang in Hong Kong, and Ivan Zhai and Mimi Lau in Guangzhou
Guangzhou usually uses 200 to 300 tonnes of salt a day, but the tonnage sold on Wednesday afternoon was: 500