Natalie Crayton, May 16
Food Standards Scotland, May 18
Natalie Crayton, 35, who set up Hebridean Sea Salt on the isle of Lewis six years ago, has confirmed her business has closed as she is no longer able to trade because of the “unnecessary and extremely heavy-handed” actions carried out by Western Isles Council officers on behalf of Food Standards Scotland (FSS), which advises the Scottish government.
FSS said it could not comment on the case at this time.
The row follows similar allegations of a heavy-handed intervention by Food Standards Scotland in the operation of Errington Cheese in Lanarkshire.
Speaking about the issue for the first time, Ms Crayton, a single mother of three young children who was born in Edinburgh and studied marine biology at Aberdeen University, said: “I would like to put the record straight because there is so much misinformation being put out there.
“This is not a food safety issue. It is a labelling issue, which had been resolved. The salt I added is pure food-grade sea salt with no additives. Yet my business has been destroyed by the bullying behaviour of FSS, which hid behind Western Isles Council environmental health officers to enforce my closure.
"The local authority had the discretion to handle it themselves, but FSS pushed and pushed to make them take what I feel were the wrong decisions.”
She claims the addition of sea salt crystals to local sea water when it is drying out, which she has been doing for 18 months, called ‘seeding’, is common practice among high-end brands and that she had declared it in SALSA food safety audits.
“Nobody ever flagged up a problem with ‘nothing added’. It’s not as if I’ve added iodine or caking agents,” she said, adding that under FSS guidelines “place of last substantial change” rendered the country of origin of the salt she added irrelevant, as it was processed on site. Her sea salt had won a Gold Star in the Guild of Fine Foods’ Great Taste Awards, has been used by Michelin star chefs including Andrew Fairlie, and was sold in supermarkets across the UK.
The authorities seized the salt and over the telephone told her to recall it from supermarket shelves without written notice – fees for which she has been billed almost £50,000. Her business is now in debt that she can’t repay, which means it’s illegal for her to trade again. She alleges that some of the supermarket buyers were perplexed as to why she was asking them to destroy the salt, which was available in Waitrose, Sainsbury's and the Co-Op.
Yet two days previously, she had changed the labels on thousands of packs at the factory to remove the words “nothing added” and “Hebridean Sea Water” to comply with the authorities’ wishes. “That broke my heart because it did not make sense to remove those words, as my salt is made from Hebridean sea water, but I did it because I was desperate to save my business,” she said.
“Nevertheless, they came in and seized all my product. I pointed out that I had complied with what they wanted, and asked why they were confiscating it because there is no food safety issue here. But they did not want to enter into any dialogue.
“Since the salt itself was not the problem, I began to open the packs and pour the salt into containers in an attempt to save it. They said: ‘Stop what you are doing’ and they took it all.”
She has heard nothing since and is “living in limbo” on Job Seekers’ Allowance. Her three local employees have been let go.
“I don’t know what they’re doing as they do not contact me. I fear they are making moves to have me prosecuted for mislabelling a product under the Food Standards Act.
“Yet all their instructions for the recall were verbal. I never received a written enforcement notice for that."
She added: “I don’t believe FSS would act like this towards a large company with a big legal team. I think they like to bully the wee guys. The two FSS officers who took my salt were big ex-policemen, acting like heavies.”
Asked how she felt when it happened, she replied: “I was absolutely distraught. This was everything I’ve worked for, and here it was being stolen from me. I ran outside and fell on the grass in floods of tears. They have destroyed me. I am a shadow of my former self. I feel I have no choice but to leave the Hebrides altogether.”
Asked for a response to the allegations, a spokesman for Food Standards Scotland said: "It would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing and currently active investigation. Food Standards Scotland is aware of this investigation and is currently liaising with the relevant enforcement authorities."
A FOOD watchdog has claimed that a Hebridean Sea Salt firm's product contained more than 80 per cent of imported table salt.
The FSS was responding to criticism by Ms Clayton who said it used “bully-boy tactics” to force the closure of her business.
Ms Crayton, who set up Hebridean Sea Salt six years ago, said FSS and Western Isles Council had used “unnecessary and extremely heavy-handed” actions to close down her company.
She claimed that rather than a food safety issue, it was a labelling issue, which had been resolved.
But in an unprecedented move, FSS issued a statement detailing the reasons for its actions.
“We would not normally disclose the details of an active and ongoing investigation. However, given the coverage of this case, we believe it is now in the public interest to disclose the issues that are under investigation," the statement said.
“This is not simply a case of mis-labelling. Investigations discovered that over 80 per cent of the salt found in Hebridean Sea Salt did not originate in the Hebrides, but was imported table salt.
“It is Food Standards Scotland’s view that, whilst this is not a food safety issue, deception of consumers on this scale is not acceptable and could damage Scotland’s well-deserved reputation for high quality, authentic food and drink products.”
Ms Crayton admitted she used imported salt to “seed” the sea salt crystals, but said this is common practice and a recognised process used by other well-known UK sea-salt producers.
The fact that her imported seed crystals had not stated country of origin was irrelevant, she added, because it was processed in the Hebrides, making its claim to be Hebridean entirely valid under the FSS’s own guidelines.
“I am not trying to deceive anyone,” she said. “My salt is sea-salt, not table salt. I was very careful where I sourced the seed salt from, so that it was pure sea-salt with no additives. Seeding is a recognised process, so why is everyone making such a fuss of me?"
Some well-known cheaper table salt brands include anti-caking agents such as sodium hexacyanoferrate II to help it flow more freely. Ms Crayton denies she added anything to her salt.
“The salt I added is pure food grade sea salt with no additives. My product was unique because it was processed in the Hebrides using the clean, pristine sea water off Lewis. For the FSS to use the words 'table salt' is, I feel, a deliberate attempt to devalue my product and make me look bad.
“I declared everything in my SALSA food safety audits and nobody ever flagged up a problem.”
She also disputed the FSS claim that 80 per cent of the salt was not from the Hebrides.
“I don’t know where they get that figure from. They took two samples and the sodium chloride content would be the same in both. There is no difference between salts. What made my product unique was the fact that it was processed in the Hebrides.
“I took extensive advice that I was complying with food safety law. Western Isles Council and FSS have all my food safety documents and until I see written evidence of what they are saying I do not want to say anything else on this.”