(22 September 1999) The other day I went into our local health food shop to buy some salt. I don't suppose health food shops really enjoy selling salt, which is now known to be very bad for you as well as being very good for you, but you don't get ordinary salt in a health food shop, anyway.
It was sea salt I was after. Not just ordinary sea salt, either, but fine sea salt. In fact, I could have gone one grade higher and bought fine organic sea salt, but as I can't quite grasp the concept of organic salt, I settled for plain old ordinary fine sea salt.
And as I was queueing to pay for my packet of fine but non-organic sea salt, my eye fell on a small message on the back of the packet. I squinted at it. It said: "Warning: this product may contain traces of nut".
This seemed odd. Why would they want to put bits of nut into salt? Have you ever seen anything like nuts in salt? Then I suddenly remembered that I had. The first time I went to France as a child I remember being very puzzled because all the salt cellars in our hotel contained what looked like little bits of nuts, and I spent our first meal-time digging around in one salt cellar and getting all these bits out, and displaying them on my side plate.
But when my father spotted what I was doing, he told me that they weren't in fact bits of nut, they were bits of rice. The French liked to put bits of rice in their salt, he said, to absorb the dampness from the salt and keep it fluffy and dry. So I spent the rest of the meal painstakingly putting all the bits of rice back into the salt cellar again.
If my packet of fine sea salt had said: "Warning: this product may contain little bits of rice inserted in traditional French style to keep it dry", I would have understood. If it had said, "Warning: this packet of fine sea salt may contain tiny fragments of dried seaweed to make it seem ever so close to nature", I would have nearly understood. But to have bits of nut in my salt ...?
So I queried it with the young man at the till.
"Be honest. How much danger is there of finding nuts in my salt?" I said, showing him the packet.
"Absolutely none at all," he said. "The packet contains 100 per cent salt and nothing else."
"Then why ...?"
"Because the manufacturers have got scared after all the recent deaths from nut allergy," he said. "So they're guarding themselves against every possible complaint. They're scattering these warnings about possible nut content on everything, even things that clearly don't contain nut. It's a panic measure to avoid any sort of compensation claim."
"But if they put warnings about possible nut content on everything," I said, "what about people who really do suffer from nut allergy? What will they be able to eat safely? What will be free from warnings about nuts?"
"Nothing," said the young man. "They will starve to death."
And that may well be the next nut allergy scandal. You'll find some poor sufferer from nut allergy who is unable to buy any food because it all bears warnings about possible nut content, yea, even unto salt and bottled water. And deprived of any safe food he will waste away and starve to death, and his grieving family will sue the manufacturers for putting false warnings about nuts on their products, leading to his death, which will mean that what the big companies thought was a safe, complaint-proof warning about nuts in fact turned out to be a killer. And will we be sorry for the big companies? No, we will not.
Meanwhile, what you all want to know is: did putting rice into salt cellars really keep the salt dry?
Well, sometimes it did and sometimes it didn't. But what the rice infallibly did was get jammed in the holes at the top of the salt cellar, so you couldn't get the salt out anyway.
In those days you were left to puzzle things like that out for yourself. Nowadays, they would have a message on those French salt cellars saying: "Warning: the presence of rice in this product may reduce salt flow, or completely halt it, and thus lead to fatal salt deficiency, and an early grave".
Warning: This article contains material that may be upsetting to those who are genuinely suffering from nut allergies.