MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
You may have spotted pink salt in your supermarket. Himalayan pink salt is used to season food and is believed to have health benefits. It's used in spa treatments. You can even buy lamps made of the stuff. Well, now the country that produces most pink salt wants to claim it as its own. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: In Pakistan, Himalayan salt is shrouded in legend.
SHAHID IQBAL: When Alexander the Great invaded the Indian subcontinent...
HADID: That's Shahid Iqbal, a Pakistani geologist. He says Alexander's horses began licking the rocks.
IQBAL: The army was curious what they are licking at. And they found it was salt.
HADID: Himalayan pink salt. And folks here believe it's been mined ever since. But it really took off a few years ago...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In today's video, we're going to be talking all about Himalayan pink salt. It's really good for your body, your aches and pains, cramps.
HADID: ...When it found popularity as a wellness product because it contains dozens of trace minerals giving it that pink hue. But the salt's actual origins are rarely highlighted or even mentioned. Iqbal, the geologist, says the salt overwhelmingly comes from Pakistan. And we drove there. You see red brick hills emerge from marshlands. These are the furthest tendrils of the Himalayas. We're hundreds of miles from the iconic snowy peaks.
It's hot here. An engineer takes us inside a mine shaft, and a mile in, we meet miners in a soaring chamber. Their methods are basic. They crank levers to bore a hole in the rock face. Another miner packs the hole with gunpowder. The engineer lights a fuse, and a miner calls out, beware.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking foreign language).
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK. OK.
HADID: That's terrifying.
HADID: Boulders of pink rock tumble down, and miners hurl them into trolleys. Until quite recently, much of that salt was exported just across the border to India, Pakistan's enemy and neighbor.
Qaisar Mahmood is a salt exporter.
QAISAR MAHMOOD: (Through interpreter) India buys salt from here. They process it and export it to Europe. They say it's made in India, and they charge people like you 10 times the price.
HADID: He used to sell his salt for $40 a ton to India. He could make $300 a ton selling it to Europe. But it's not that easy for a man like him.
MAHMOOD: This language problem also.
HADID: He doesn't speak English well. He doesn't have contacts. And he can't navigate his way around Pakistan's complicated bureaucracy for exporting products, and he can't meet European standards.
MAHMOOD: (Through interpreter) If they find even a strand of hair, they will reject the entire batch.
HADID: Those sales recently became controversial in Pakistan. It's hard to imagine salt as a matter of national pride, but that's what happened. A social media campaign against the sales to India went viral in June, and then it became a national issue.
SHIBLI FARRAZ: It was being sold for a song.
HADID: That's Senator Shibli Farraz. Pakistan made just over $50 million exporting salt last year, and he believes they can triple that with reforms.
FARRAZ: There was lot of concern as to - we were exporting it at a very, very low price, and most of it was going to India.
HADID: So when tensions flared in August over the disputed territory of Kashmir, Pakistan banned all trade with India, including salt. Farraz is now advocating legislation to discourage crude salt sales and encourage the production on high-value finished products.
FARRAZ: Let this be an opportunity to kind of diversify and substitute for imports.
HADID: Farraz says in coming months, he'll introduce legislation that will trademark Himalayan pink salt and force companies to list it as a Pakistani product. Farraz says that will allow Pakistan to accrue revenue when companies use the name, and it will tie Pakistan's name to an upmarket product.
But traders like Mahmood, whose business has been devastated by the ban on exports to India, says that could hurt business. He says Pakistan doesn't have a good reputation as a producer of high-end goods, and the country is associated with violence.
MAHMOOD: (Through interpreter) India works on its image; we don't. We have neglected our branding.
HADID: But one Pakistani salt producer says things can be different. He's built a rare business selling high-end products to the United States. Niaz Siddiqui shows me around his showroom. There's lamps, tequila shot glasses, sushi platters and his most popular product.
NIAZ SIDDIQUI: They are called the Zen Cubes.
HADID: This is a Zen Cube.
SIDDIQUI: This is a Zen Cube.
HADID: It's a cube of salt, and it costs 16 bucks. He says profits like this should be going to Pakistan. And it's possible, he says, if the country improves its branding, to have a world where Himalayan pink salt is proudly Pakistani.
Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Khewra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.