It is not often that a food scandal will see donkey meat feature as the adulterated rather than the adulterating product. But in China, where the beast of burden’s hide is a cherished medicinal ingredient, that’s what’s happened.
Donkey hide gelatine or e’jiao is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) used as a ‘blood enricher’ to treat a variety of ailments such as anaemia, as well as to prevent miscarriages.
The demand for e’jiao in China is such that it requires 5,000 tonnes of donkey hide to be processed each year, which means roughly 4 million donkeys are slaughtered. But, according to an industry insider, there are only 3,000 tonnes of the skin available annually, including imports that supplement the dwindling local supply.
This discrepancy has led to suggestions that up to 40% of the e’jiao supply in China is fake. Some unscrupulous suppliers, various media report, have been mixing donkey hide with cow, pig and horse skins and selling their dermal deceptions as the real deal.
The interesting thing about this subterfuge is that cow and pig skin used to be more common TCM materials for concocting blood enriching tonics, until donkey peel was found to be more effective in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
In fact, despite being the most genetically related, horse hide is also the most dangerous counterfeit. The skin of a donkey now costs between Rmb2,000 ($307) and Rmb3,000, whereas that of a horse can be as low as Rmb200, estimates Bu Xun, an executive with the Shandong Agricultural Science Institute. However, it can have less welcome effects.
One professor of Chinese medicine even told ThePaper.cn that if a pregnant woman takes a horse skin tonic, “it is highly possible she will have a miscarriage”.
The reason for the shortfall in e’jiao supply is a dearth of donkeys. China Daily reports the population has fallen from 11 million in the 1990s to only 6 million today. This is due to greater mechanisation of agriculture and also to the difficulty of breeding donkeys.
Qin Yufeng, a politician in China’s Shandong province – which is responsible for 90% of China’s e’jiao production – has repeatedly called for policies to revive the ailing industry. “I recommend that donkeys enjoy the same large-scale supportive livestock policies as cows and sheep,” the Wall Street Journal quoted him saying last year.
Qin has good reason to be concerned about the falling donkey population: he is also chairman of China’s most prestigious producer of the TCM gelatine: Dong’e Ejiao. Faced with the undersupply of donkeys, Dong’e Ejiao has had to raise the price of its product 16 times in the last 10 years, effecting an annual rise of 23%, ThePaper.cn reports.
Dong’e Ejiao has been compelled to look to develop other donkey products to diversify revenues. For example, it has teamed up with Shandong Lübang Catering to launch a donkey meat hot pot brand and a donkey meat steamed bun, China Daily reports.
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