Red and black Hawaiian salts can add visual spice and flavor to food. They are also technically illegal to sell under federal law.
This predicament led local manufacturers of the two artisanal, premium-priced salts to seek assistance this year from state lawmakers for certifying the salts as safe to make them legal under U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.
Lawmakers were considering paying for, or partially paying for, scientific studies and FDA review to determine whether the elements that give these salts their color — alaea clay from Kauai and activated charcoal — are safe food additives after decades of use.
One industry estimate is that this work will cost $150,000 at a minimum.
However, members of a joint House and Senate conference committee on Friday failed to work out differences on a bill aimed at paying for certification work, ending the chance that makers of colored Hawaiian salt will receive such help this year.
Local salt makers contend the industry is too small to afford the certification cost. But they also claim the industry is too important not to seek safety certification. They also say a warning the FDA issued in 2015 has led some distributors and retailers to gradually stop ordering red and black Hawaiian salt under the possibility of enforcement action, though the product remains widely available for purchase.
“If we do not comply with the FDA requirements this business will be completely destroyed in time, adversely affecting employment and export business for the state of Hawaii,” George Joseph, president of a San Diego- based company that produces sea salt on Molokai, told lawmakers in written testimony.
Joseph, who heads Hawaii Kai Corp., was testifying on House Bill 1229, introduced by Rep. Mark Hashem (D, Hahaione Valley-Aina Haina- Kahala).
The bill initially sought to appropriate an unspecified sum of money to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to help address FDA regulations on colored sea salts. A Senate committee later amended the bill to have private businesses pay half the cost.
“Sea salt products colored with Hawaiian charcoal, volcanic clay, and other natural ingredients help to promote the state’s brand,” the bill states.
However, there were concerns over who would pay for complying with the federal law and who benefits.
“The question as to who will pay and how much is of concern,” DBEDT Director Mike McCartney said in written testimony, noting that no Hawaii salt trade organization exists.
Certifying red clay and charcoal as safe salt additives would benefit companies in Hawaii and beyond, including producers, distributors and retailers.
Some salt producers say business is declining, and they fear it will dry up completely and be replaced by competitors such as naturally pink Himalayan sea salt.
Cameron Hiro, a Molokai resident who was supplying Hawaii Kai Corp., said in written testimony on HB 1229 that his operation producing about 2,500 pounds of salt a month with four workers is shuttered largely due to the FDA regulations.
“We are basically in a maintenance mode,” he said, also noting that four jobs on economically distressed Molokai is a relatively big loss.
Paul Nagy, a vice president at Illinois-based food supplier and distributor Woodland Foods, said in written testimony that red and black Hawaiian salts are an important part of the company’s global product portfolio, and that Woodland recently lost a long-term opportunity to sell these salts to one of the world’s largest retailers because of the FDA warning.
Hawaiian Pa‘akai also testified in support of the bill, saying it produces 10,000 pounds of red sea salt per month and has made the product since the 1970s using alaea clay harvested from mountains on Kauai.
Kauai-based Salty Wahine Gourmet Hawaiian Sea Salts testified that Costco on Kauai quit buying its red and black Hawaiian salts in 2016. Salty Wahine also said it worked with Hawaii Kai Corp. to seek certification but found the requirements too daunting.
Salty Wahine said that prior to 2015 the FDA maintained a list of colorants prohibited for food uses, and that charcoal, alaea clay and pharmaceutical-grade bamboo (used to make green sea salt) were OK because they weren’t on the list.
In 2015, however, the agency published a “guidance” document explaining that color additives in food are deemed unsafe unless they are approved as safe by the FDA. “Neither charcoal nor red clay is listed for safe use by FDA,” the document states.
As such, the agency considers red and black Hawaiian salt to be “adulterated” foods prohibited in interstate commerce. “FDA can take enforcement action against an adulterated food product, consistent with our priorities and resources,” the document said.
Joseph of Hawaii Kai Corp. said the reversal in policy and singling out red and black Hawaiian salts is unfair. “These two ingredients are safe and had been used for human consumption for centuries,” he said in an email.
A sampling of prices for red “alaea” or black Hawaiian salt
>> Salt Traders (4-ounce jar): $8 at salttraders.com
>> Pacifica Hawaii (8-ounce package): $10 at Foodland
>> Artisan Salt Co. (8-ounce pouch): $6.35 on Amazon