The Swiss salt monopoly
The salt monopoly is the sovereign right to extract salt. In Switzerland, this right is held by the cantons. In 1973, the Swiss cantons (with the exception of the canton of Vaud) concluded a ‘Concordat’ agreement that transferred the rights and obligations involved in the salt trade to Swiss Saltworks. The new canton of Jura acceded to the agreement in 1979, and the canton of Vaud followed suit in 2014. The merger between Swiss Saltworks on the Rhine AG and Saline de Bex SA took place in 2014. Since then, the company has traded as Swiss Saltworks AG. Swiss Saltworks AG is a private enterprise owned solely by the 26 Swiss cantons and also (since 1990) by the Principality of Liechtenstein.
Isn’t the salt monopoly a relic of the Middle Ages?
It dates back to the Middle Ages, but it is not a relic! There are good reasons why the cantons still maintain the autonomy of Switzerland’s salt supply today. In times gone by, the primary purpose was to ensure a reliable supply of nutrition while maintaining independence from foreign powers. Nowadays, however, the focus is on ensuring mobility, especially during the winter months. The preservation of food used to be the driving force behind the monopoly, but in modern times this has been replaced by the enormous economic damage caused by even minor impairments to mobility.
Another positive effect is central storage. Swiss Saltworks produces and stores salt for the whole of Switzerland. The availability of storage and shipment facilities, proximity to customers and the well-established distribution system make it possible to call up large quantities of de-icing salt with consistent quality at all times, even at short notice. This allows the cantons and communes to focus on providing winter services and to keep a comparatively small stock of salt for operational purposes.
Can’t salt be bought in more cheaply from abroad?
Swiss Saltworks has standard prices that ensure solidarity and stability. These fixed winter and summer prices support solidarity with the peripheral regions throughout Switzerland. This means that the same price is always charged for delivery to the customer’s salt silo, regardless of whether it is located in the nearby city of Basel or in the remote Poschiavo valley. This solidarity is unknown among foreign salt suppliers. Experience from other countries also indicates that salt producers and dealers seek to improve their economic situation, which can have a major negative impact on supplies of de-icing salt and thus on mobility, especially in severe winters. Delayed deliveries and massive price increases then become possible. However, prices in Switzerland always remain consistent and predictable for customers.
Can’t reliable supplies also be guaranteed with salt from abroad?
Thanks to an excellently developed storage infrastructure, Swiss Saltworks guarantees that stocks of de-icing salt are always adequate and that the quality of the salt remains constant. This even holds true in extreme winters when demand is very high and conditions on the transportation routes are poor. If there is a shortage of salt somewhere in Europe, adequate quantities usually cease to be available for purchase in all European countries. Freedom to choose the purchasing source would be of no use in such periods. On the contrary: past experience of harsh winters shows that the supply of salt has never actually collapsed in Switzerland, which cannot be said of certain other European countries. Moreover, there has not been the slightest negative impact on other market segments such as industrial and commercial salt or table salt; it has been possible to supply customers with salt continuously at all times, on a routine basis.
Winter service users also confirm to Swiss Saltworks that the high quality of fine Swiss salt plays its part in ensuring trouble-free winter services.
Long transport routes for salt from other countries result in a worse CO2 footprint for winter services. Swiss Saltworks produces salt in Switzerland, close to the consumers.
Can’t the communes and cantons also build larger storage facilities of their own?
Weather is unpredictable, so customers would have to gear their infrastructure on the ground to peak demand. This calls for major investments in storage facilities and the use of valuable reserves of land. Furthermore, capital is tied up in the stored salt. Swiss Saltworks’ tried-and-tested supply system for de-icing salt makes these storage capacities available on a centralised basis and the supplies of de-icing salt required in response to weather conditions can always be delivered to the regions thanks to efficient and well-established logistics. As well as saving resources, this approach conserves government funds and valuable reserves of land.
Winter service – a critical public service provided by cantons and communes.
Mobility on Switzerland’s roads is ensured by the public sector. In order to achieve this, the cantons and communes must be able to rely on dependable infrastructure and organisation – and also on a winter service that operates optimally during the winter months. Alongside staff and machinery, the key factors are the guaranteed availability of de-icing salt and proximity to the supplier.
The cantons (the owners of Swiss Saltworks) are clearly in favour of supplying Switzerland with salt from domestic production. The main factors are lack of dependency on foreign suppliers, the consistently high quality of Swiss evaporated salt, and the provision of storage and logistics services with predictable pricing on a basis of solidarity. Swiss Saltworks therefore has a clear mandate to provide customers with a constantly reliable supply of salt – not a mandate to maximise profits.
Appropriate preventive health for the nation thanks to iodine- and fluoride-enriched salt.
Federal food legislation allows the addition of iodine and fluorine to table salt, but it provides no basis for obliging manufacturers and dealers to do so. In terms of preventive medicine, therefore, monopoly conditions offer the most effective and affordable means of achieving the desired objectives. At present, Switzerland achieves by far the highest level of supplies of iodine/fluorine-enriched salt in Europe. Furthermore, iodine- and fluoride-enriched table salt in Switzerland is no more expensive than table salt without additives. In this respect, Swiss Saltworks is making a major contribution to public health.
The salt monopoly does not curtail the diverse range of table salts available.
Import regulations have been liberalised in recent years. This guarantees diversity in the table salt specialities segment in Switzerland. Imports of up to 6,000 kg per importer, year and article are authorised in return for payment of flat charges of CHF 100.00 for quantities up to 500 kg and CHF 150.00 for quantities from 500 kg to 6,000 kg. For quantities up to 50 kg, no charge is levied on imports for private use and sample consignments.
Advantages of the salt monopoly at a glance:
- Ecological packaging and the conservation of resources are optimised
- Transport ecology is optimised (including rail and truck services)
- Advantageous overall cost balance and lean organisation for the cantons and communes
- Fair, consistent pricing throughout Switzerland – solidarity among the cantons
- Reliable supplies and no price increases for supplies in case of emergencies
- No unpredictable price fluctuations = customers can budget very reliably
- Supplies of iodine and fluorine are optimised for the purposes of preventive medicine
- No artificial high-price policy for “healthy” salts containing iodine and/or fluorine
- The monopoly is neutral in terms of fiscal policy Monopoly fees = excise duty at cantonal level
- No private profiteers Company profits remain with the cantons
- Swiss salt is favourably priced, but it would tend to become more expensive without the monopoly
The rules and procedures for importing salt into Switzerland are described in the following documents: