Donkey gelatin shortage in China sparks tonic fears

A donkey searching for water at a borehole in rural Masvingo, Zimbabwe, on Jan 21.
A donkey searching for water at a borehole in rural Masvingo, Zimbabwe, on Jan 21. PHOTO: REUTERS

Supply woes lead to flood of imitations of traditional remedy

BEIJING • As if there had not been enough scares out of China lately, a new threat looms: a shortage of donkey skin gelatin.

State news outlets warn that the diminishing supply has attracted a flood of imitations for donkey gelatin, a popular traditional medicine. And some breeders in the eastern province of Shandong, the historic heartland for donkey gelatin, are using implanted identification chips to protect their increasingly precious beasts. At least one company has offered consumers DNA certificates to prove that its product is the real deal.

Known as ejiao in Chinese, donkey gelatin is made by boiling the donkey's skin and refining the results into a tonic.

Ejiao is taken mainly by women who suffer from anaemia, dry coughs or dizziness.

Around 5,000 tonnes of ejiao are produced annually in China, according to figures released this week by the Shandong Ejiao Trade Association. That output needs around four million donkey hides but annual supply in China is fewer than 1.8 million, meaning as much as 40 per cent of the products claiming to be ejiao are counterfeit, according to the figures.

Known as ejiao in Chinese, donkey gelatin is made by boiling the donkey's skin and refining the results into a tonic. Ejiao is taken mainly by women who suffer from anaemia, dry coughs or dizziness.

"With the current donkey hide supply, only 3,000 tonnes of ejiao can be manufactured each year," said Mr Dong Shuguang, an ejiao consultant with more than 20 years' experience in the industry.

Donkey breeders say that the shortfall has been met by gelatin from other sources, including animals that have none of the special properties of donkeys.

"People have begun using the skins from mules, horses, pigs and oxen to produce counterfeit tonics," Xinhua news agency said in a report on Thursday. "In some cases, people have even used shoes."

Mr Qin Yunfeng, chairman of Dong'e Ejiao in Shandong, and a provincial legislator, said he has campaigned for a better deal for donkey breeders and urged that the government include support for the industry in its next five-year plan.

"The government should support donkey breeders by offering subsidies to encourage more breeding," Mr Qin said.

The donkey crisis has deep roots in the countryside. These creatures were once much more common in Chinese villages, especially in the north, where they tilled fields, hauled produce and circled grindstones for grain. But with the spread of machinery, donkeys have retreated.

In the 1990s, China had 11 million of them, but that has fallen to six million, and the population keeps dropping by about 300,000 a year, National Business Daily, a Chinese newspaper, reported on Thursday, citing government data.

NEW YORK TIMES, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Donkey gelatin shortage in China sparks tonic fears'. Print Edition | Subscribe