RIGA - Many regions in Latvia, particularly in the eastern part of the country, are experiencing a shortage of coarse salt after rumors of its impending prohibition after May 1 spread among consumers who use the commodity to preserve fish, vegetables and hay.
The area most affected by the panic-hoarding has been Daugavpils, Latvia's second largest city, where the sale of salt has increased by a factor of 50, according to director of public relations for the supermarket chain Rimi Inta Kovlakovska.
Sugar sales have also more than doubled in the Daugavpils area, Kovlakovska added.
Latgale, the eastern region where Daugavpils is located, is the poorest area in Latvia, which itself is the poorest of the 10 accession countries. Even the slightest price increases on staples have a resounding affect among consumers.
The demand for coarse salt, in fact, is part and parcel of the region's destitution: many Latgalite residents maintain vegetable gardens and preserve their harvest year-long by pickling tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables.
Still, farmers have been some of the biggest buyers of coarse salt, since they use it for preserving hay to feed their animals during the winter.
Indeed, supermarkets and stores have reported selling huge quantities of coarse salt to individual consumers.
Expectedly, the shortage of salt in eastern Latgale has spread to other areas of Latvia, even as far as the capital.
Liene, a 23-year-old Riga office worker, said her mother and grandmother called her from Cesis asking her to buy coarse salt and vinegar in the capital city as the supply in her hometown had vanished.
The local media even reported on a Ventspils man who bought an astounding 150 kilos of coarse salt.
The salt shortage "is becoming a problem in Riga and other areas too," Kovlakovska confirmed.
According to the Diena daily, one of the reasons for shortage were reports on a Russia-based TV channel that the European Union would not allow course salt, the cheapest variety is from Ukraine, to continue to be imported to Latvia, in favor of iodine salt, an inferior preserving ingredient.
Many people in Latgale, an area with a high concentration of ethnic Russians, apparently took the rumor at face value, though native Latvians also believed it.
"Europe does not have course salt," said Ilze, 58, a Riga resident said. She said she has been unable to find coarse salt at her local store, something she uses to marinate pickles, cabbage and salads.
Some specialists suspected speculation was at play, with retailers cashing in on some of Latvians' basic fears: inflation and food shortages.
Before the rumor broke the price of coarse salt had already climbed from 8 santims (0.12 euro) to 13 santims for one kilogram due to distributors' rise, according to Rimi's Kovlakovska.
"We think it is a marketing trick on the part of salt suppliers. After May 1 Ukraine, from which we are importing high quantities of salt, will be subject to a change in trade rules," Ieva Jakobsone, public relations director for Latvia's Traders Association, said.
At the same time, in a country where many in the countryside still remember the wartime shortages and Soviet era, hoarding is only too natural.
"People remember 40 and 50 years ago when finding salt was a problem," said Jakobsone.
Similar hoarding of cheap Ukrainian sugar took place in Estonia earlier this year over fears of a sharp price increase after EU expansion, though it appeared several retailers wanted to strike a windfall by importing from Ukraine on the cheap and then exporting to Scandinavia after May 1.
The country is facing steep fines by the European Commission.
As far as coarse salt, Latvians will be pleased to find that not only will it remain on store shelves long after May 1, but its price is unlikely to rise further.
"There will be no dramatic price increase due to EU accession," Inese Stepina, press officer for the European Delegation, said.
"There is no reason to believe there will be a restriction on coarse salt imports to Latvia," Stepina added.