The Proof of the Pudding…
UNICEF’s study tour to Switzerland convinced Moldovan delegates to use iodized salt in processed food.
By Gaelle Sevenier
14 April, 2006, Geneva. UNICEF invited seven delegates from the Republic of Moldova to visit Swiss food factories and learn from their experience of using iodized salt in food production. Among the delegates were government officials and major Moldovan food producers.
The idea for the study tour was simple: “Switzerland can play an important role in transferring experience and knowledge to Moldova for the use of iodized salt in the food industry, which is the missing link in the fight against iodine deficiency,” explained Lilia Turcan, the Nutrition and Immunization Officer of UNICEF Moldova who organized the tour along with the regional office for CEE/CIS.
Switzerland used to have high levels of iodine deficiency (ID). In 1806, on Napoleon’s order, the Prefect of the Swiss Canton of Valais conducted a survey for military service recruitment. The survey revealed that out of 70,000 inhabitants, 4,000 were cretins. Only later did researchers discover that cretinism, along with goitre (swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck) and, more importantly, mental retardation, were direct effects of ID.
Iodine is a mineral that is essential for the development and growth of the human body. Iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) begin to affect infants before they are born at the time that brains are formed (1st trimester of pregnancy) and can seriously impair the lives of children and adults. ID is the most common preventable cause of mental disability in the world, resulting in an IQ loss of 10-15% and therefore impact on the child’s learning and earning in life. Providing iodine through salt for human (including table salt and salt used for industrial food production) and animal consumption, also called universal salt iodization, is the most effective and inexpensive way.
Based on local initiatives, Switzerland introduced iodized salt in 1922. Since 1960, the country eliminated ID through universal salt iodization. Both the visible signs like cretinism and goitre as well as the more important hidden effect on brain development have completely disappeared in the country. “Introduction of iodine into salt in Switzerland was fortunately helped by the constitutionally guaranteed salt monopoly” commented Dr Hans Burgi, Swiss member of the Board of International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders. “Iodized salt has without any doubt been the most cost-effective preventive health measure ever applied in Switzerland. At little cost, it has prevented a lot of disease and suffering. At a cost of 0.7 million euro salt iodization is worth the investment: the country saves 500 million euros! ”
The Republic of Moldova is one of the poorest countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The first and only epidemiological survey carried out in 1996-1998 showed high levels of iodine deficiency among school children. According to the latest estimates, every year, approximately 27,000 newborn babies suffer from brain damage in Moldova, because of ID.
Table salt is partly iodized, about 60% of households use iodized salt, which alone is not enough to meet the population’s need for iodine. In fact, since most of the salt consumed comes from processed food such as bread, cheese, meat products and pickles, this food needs to be produced with iodized salt. Many food producers are reluctant to use it. “There are many misconceptions about the use of iodized salt in food industries,” explained Arnold Timmer, Nutrition Project Officer for UNICEF CEE/CIS. “Some producers think it changes the taste or colour of the food, and do not want to take the risk. However, many food producers have been using iodized salt for a very long time without any problem. And this is what we want to demonstrate to our Moldovan colleagues.”
UNICEF is a key player in the Regional ID elimination strategy. “The Regional Office for CEE/CIS supported two other study tours with delegates from Turkey visiting Bulgaria and from Latvia visiting the Netherlands. Those study tours have proven to be very effective in advancing our goal,” said Timmer.
From March 27-30th, UNICEF traveled through Switzerland with the Moldovan delegation. In Gruyeres, cheese producer Jacques Ecoffey explained that using iodized salt in the famous Swiss cheese does not change the taste of it. In Kussnacht am Rigi, the family company Baer, largest soft cheese producer in the country, stated that they have been using iodized salt as long as they can remember, without any negative effect on the quality. The delegation members themselves could verify this by tasting the many cheeses that are produced here.. A midnight tour at the Pouly Industrial Bread factory in Geneva (led by its Production Director Hubert Depierre) once more convinced the delegation members that iodized salt use is, in fact, standard business practice in food production in Switzerland.
“The visit convinced us that iodine has no effects on the taste and consistency of the food,” said Ion Cretu, Head of the Department of the Food Industry and Regulations, Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry of the Republic of Moldova. “We saw that all the famous products of Switzerland are produced with iodized salt. In Moldova, we have wasted a lot of time. We should have started using it a lot earlier!” Petru Ataman and Eugen Baleca, General Directors of cheese and bread factories in Moldova, both committed themselves to start testing the use of iodized salt in their products upon their return. “This exchange with Switzerland has been very positive,” concluded Lilia Turcan. “During this tour, people have changed their mind about iodine use in front of our eyes!” It is expected that Moldovan food producers will soon start following the Swiss example of using iodized salt in processed food.
The negative consequences of not using iodized salt are not confined to CEE/CIS countries. In fact, more than half the people in Western and Central Europe live in iodine-deficient countries. In contrast with the concerted effort that UNICEF has been put into CEE/CIS, the issue seems to have slipped through the public healthcare net of European countries such as France and Ireland. Today, Switzerland is an example for Moldova. Tomorrow, Moldovan food producers may be an example for other CEE/CIS countries as well as for Western European countries which have not yet eliminated ID; they will be able to demonstrate that universal salt iodization is simple and cheap, and that it has the potential to protect the brain development of millions of children.
Arnold Timmer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lilia Turcan, Lturcan@unicef.org
Welcome to Moldovan delegation, by Shahnaz Kianian-Firouzgar, Deputy Regional Director, CEE/CIS
Radio and video clips