Health regulator triggers debate after deriding ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine
Ejiao, long hailed in China as a treasure of traditional Chinese medicine, was unexpectedly lashed out at during the Lunar New Year period by the public Weibo account of the country's top health regulator. Although the post was later deleted with an apology for “causing misunderstanding due to lax management”, an overwhelming number of netizens voiced their suspicion that Ejiao's curative effect might have been exaggerated with an industry worth tens of billions' yuan behind its back.

“Ejiao is nothing but 'stewed donkey-hide'. Its major constituent is collagen, while the protein could not count as good nutrition because it contains no tryptophan, which is necessary (for human health),” wrote the controversial post, which immediately aroused widespread attention online during the Spring Festival shopping spree period, by @National Health 12320—the official public welfare Weibo account of the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

It's widely reported by Chinese media that despite the agency's remedial action, online debate incited by the post has continued to heat up, with a group of netizens criticizing the post as being irresponsible and rabid while others believing it may be just telling the truth. Based on the monitoring data of public opinions by a state-run newspaper featuring Chinese Traditional Medicine, over half of the Internet users paying close attention to the incident agreed with the deleted post, believing ejiao should not be worth that much money.

Sustained attention to the incident has encouraged some Chinese media to dig deeper, unmasking an industry in the country that has harvested exorbitant profits for years. Donge Ejiao Group, the leading enterprise in the sector, responded to media inquiries, claiming sales of their ejiao products are not affected by the incident, although it's reported the listed company's share price had dropped 2.16 percent while the Shanghai and Shenzhen markets both surged on the first trading day since the Lunar New Year holiday.

It's reported by multiple Chinese media that the company had raised the price of its staple ejiao product by 14 times between 2010 and 2017, with the unit price of every kilogram's gelatin piece shooting from 596 yuan to 3,443 yuan. And the company's share price is known to have risen from 5.4 yuan at the beginning of 2006 to somewhere near 62 yuan now.

Donge Ejiao's annual report indicated it realized a net profit of 1.85 billion yuan in 2016, with a gross profit rate as high as 74.11 percent, and in the first three quarters of 2017, the company generated a net profit of 1.24 billion yuan.

Several industry insiders were quoted by the media as saying the reason behind the surge in the prices is a shortage of donkey-hide. Donkeys were used to do farm work and transportation in North China many years ago, but their utility became limited with the modernization of agriculture. Donkey stocks had gone down from 9.44 million in 1996 to 5.42 million in 2015, according to figures from the national statistical yearbook for livestock industry.

Amid the pinch, some industry insiders indicated that the unit price of a standard donkey-hide has shot up nearly 100 times from around 20 yuan in 2000 to 2,500 yuan these days. Foreign media previously reported that some African countries including the Niger and Burkina Faso had announced to suspend exports of donkey-hide to China, while complaining that their domestic resources of donkeys had been “overly exploited”.

According to estimates by the Qianzhan Industry Research, a consulting company, the ejiao industry could still maintain an average annual growth of 15 percent between 2017 and 2022, with its market value scaling to 71.7 bn yuan by 2022.

It presents an ironic situation where on the on hand, there is rising market demand and expectations, and on the other, lingering doubts about the magic medicine's curative effect.

The health regulator’s post has called into question orthodox theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which have had long insisted that ejiao is effective in replenishing blood, nourishing skin, preventing miscarriage and resisting fatigue.

In the 1930s, experimental science first tried the magic therapy's efficacy. Doctor Ni Zhangqi, with the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) at the time, experimented on anaemic dogs and found that ejiao is capable of replenishing blood only when it's used by anaemic animals - meaning it is of no use to those who're not anaemic. Meanwhile, Ni concluded “it is not true that only ejiao made of donkey-hide is effective in replenishing blood”. The Beijing University of Chinese Medicine had conducted experiments later, further proving that skin of pig, horse and cow could all replace that of donkey because there is “no detectable difference in the amino acid content in different kinds of gelatin”.

Till now, Donge Ejiao Group has not come forward to refute the doubts recently, except a  post on its official Weibo account which suggested vaguely that Western and traditional Chinese medicine have their own respective strengths.

Fang Shuting, head of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), was more vocal about his support for ejiao. “It has more than one thousand years of history and its curative effects are quite clearly defined,” he said, adding ejiao was first documented by the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, the first Chinese book on agricultural and medicinal plants. Among all the 650 classic ancient books on traditional Chinese medicine he looked up, Fang emphasized that 303 books have records about ejiao and it's used in over 3,200 prescriptions.

According to the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, ejiao is gelatin obtained from the skin of equids by soaking and stewing, and it could “replenish blood, nourish Yin and moisten dryness”.

“We object to those businesses that would purposely exaggerate the efficacy of health care products just to make a fortune, while (we should) also be careful that some people may deny the utility of traditional Chinese medicines just to draw attention,” said Yang Zhongqi, chief physician of the No. 1 Hospital Affiliated to the Guangzhou University of TCM.

He introduced that besides its main ingredient of donkey-hide, yellow rice wine, rock candy and soybean oil are all used in the magic therapy's sophisticated and delicate production process.    

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