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An INVESTIGATIVE REPORT – The production, raw material resources and consumption of donkey-hide gelatin (Ejiao)

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Ejiao product for sale in Australian supermarket. Credit – Humane Society International

Ejiao
donkey-hide gelatin (DHG)

Donkey-hide gelatin (DHG, or ejiao) was originally recorded in Shen Nong Herbal Classic of Materia Medica
and the Compendium of Materia Medica. It was used as an ingredient of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in ancient times. With the economic development of China and rising consumption, people have become more concerned about their health. Seeing profit opportunities in TCM, DHG producers began to exaggerate the properties of DHG. As a result, DHG price has gone up from RMB 100 or 200 per kilogram to RMB 3000 to 4000 per kilogram. The price rise resulted in more participation of DHG producers in the production as well as a short supply of donkey hide, the main raw material of DHG. The unit price for each donkey hide has therefore increased from a dozen yuan (RMB) (less than $2 USD) to RMB 3,000 (more than $460 USD) per sheet. The domestic population of donkeys has dropped from more than 11 million to around 5 million1.

The shortage of domestic raw material has driven the DHG producers to the overseas market to import donkey hide in large volumes for DHG production. However, donkeys are important for transport and farming in any developing countries. In the western African country Bukina Faso, 45,000 out of a total population of 1.4 million donkeys were slaughtered in just six months2. This massive slaughter is reported to have seriously affected agricultural production and the livelihoods of the local people. Reports in many countries criticised China as “a country looking for donkeys all around the world” 3.


Donkey being slaughtered. Credit Humane Society International

As demand for the product increases in China, more donkey hides are being imported. The resulting loss of livelihoods for impoverished communities, animal welfare concerns and the dubious efficacy and quality of the final product could all potentially damage China’s reputation. This is why we conducted this investigation of the current state of the DHG industry, its production, and the way donkeys are slaughtered.

Initial literature review

Initially we conducted a literature review that included 30 books and ancient classics, 16 academic papers and media reports on a wide range of subjects. These included donkey hide, production process, DHG substitutes and producers. The review revealed that the current demand for donkey hide is around four million donkey sheets. The number of donkeys in China has dropped from 11 million in 1990 to about five million at the present time4. As a result, the domestic suppliers can only provide 1.2 million sheets due to the sharp drop in the donkey population.

DHG producers began to import donkey hides to beat the shortage at home As a TCM ingredient, DHG was believed to have similar properties to gelatin from cow hide and a new type madefrom pigskin. Donkey hide has often been fraudulently substituted with other cheaper and more accessible materials. Yet no replaceable herbal remedy of DHG was mentioned in ancient medical books. Herbal substitutes for animal-based medicines could become a new direction of scientific research.

Donkey skins. Credit – Humane Society International

DHG is mainly produced in Shandong, Henan and Hebei. Dong’e in Shandong is the place where DHG originated. So we chose to make the field investigation in Dong’e County, Liaocheng City of Shandong Province. There are more than 20 companies registered in DHG production in the city, including Dong’e DHG, a large company with a registration fund of over RMB 600 million; nine large and intermediate scale companies with the registration fund of more than RMB 10 million and; around 100 small companies or unregistered workshops.

A rapid expansion of DHG production-price hikes, donkey population drop and rising cost of raw materials

In 2015, the retail sale of DHG in drugstores alone has reached RMB 6.582 billion, an increase of 32.8% than that in the previous year6. DHG has stood at the top of the sales of the drugstores for many successive years. Most of the sales were achieved by products produced by some 200 DHG companies in Shandong that employ more than 100,000 workers. Dong’e DHG, the largest DHG producer in Shandong, has built a farm for raising 10,000 donkeys. The number of donkey hides in its annual order exceeds 1 million.

The production and sale scales of DHG are extremely huge. Besides the two biggest producers, Dong’e and Fujiao, the other smaller ones usually have an annual output of 100-200 tons. The national sales are around 6000 to 7000 tons, worth RMB 23.6 billion on the market. It is estimated that the DHG output will have doubled by 2020, reaching RMB 52.4 billion.

The National Developing Plan of Herbivore Animal Husbandry (2016-2020) issued by the Ministry of Agriculture included donkey as a target industry for the first time. The inclusion of donkey farming in the Plan has been  interpreted by some insiders as an opportunity for the development of a donkey industry in China. The DHG industry is expected to maintain a growth rate of 15% annually from 2015 to 2020.

What lies behind the huge market value of DHG are the sky rocketing prices of both the raw material and the finished product. The shortage of live donkeys in the world has led to a corresponding rise of the prices of donkey hide and DHG. According to the statistics of Shandong DHG Industrial Association, the unit price of donkey hides which was around RMB 20 in 2000 went up to less than RMB 500 in 2010 and soared to RMB 1,500 in 2014, with the average purchase price reaching over RMB 2,600 in 2015.

There was a short period of low price in the DHG market from 2002 to 2006, mainly due to a price war triggered
by competition. During that period, some large DHG companies joined hands to lower down the price in order to force some small companies out of the market. Meanwhile, with the progress of modernisation and mechanisation of  agriculture, the donkey population has dropped since farmers are keeping fewer donkeys. Therefore, the cost of donkey hides has increased. To maintain low-price, some companies have resorted to fraudulent practices by using horsehide, mixed leather, even industrial leather and so on to fake DHG. The negative effect of such activity still remains.

Dong’e DHG company has raised its selling price since 2006 once or twice a year or once every other year. In total, the price has been raised 16 times over 10 years.

In 2002, one kilogram of DHG reached RMB 100. Since then, the price has been rising. After Shandong Bureau of Commodity Price stopped government price fixing on donkey hide in 2010, DHG price showed the highest rise by 60% at one time in 2011. Specifically, the price of Dong’e DHG was RMB 3,978 per kilogram in 2015 and RMB 4,730 per kilogram in 2016, an increase by almost RMB 800. The price of Fujiao product was RMB 2,760 per kilogram in 2015 and RMB 3,960 per kilogram in 2016, an increase by RMB 1,200. The other brands have also increased their prices on average by 30%.7

Every year in China, four million donkeys are slaughtered for making DHG. Thousands of donkeys are killed each week. Donkeys raised specifically for ejiao production, either on donkey farms or by individual farmers with other animals and only a few donkeys, live less than three years before being slaughtered and skinned. Higher demand for donkey hides brings about mass slaughter and threatens the domestic donkey population. According to statistics, the total population of donkeys in China had reduced by 52.5%, from 12.7 million in 1954 to 6.03 million in 2013. It is still going down at a yearly rate of 3% to 5%.

DHG Export from China

The export of DHG has increased partly due to the active promotion by the DHG producers and partly due to increase of Chinese immigrants in the countries concerned. The export of DHG is for satisfying the health or medicinal needs of Chinese nationals overseas or Chinese who emigrated to the foreign countries. From the statistics of China’s customs information network (www.haiguan.info), we found that the export of DHG pills in the first 10 months of 2017 reached $100 million.

The top 20 markets of DHG are the countries and regions where Chinese, or people of Chinese decent, live or where traditional medicine derived from the Traditional Chinese Medicine has been practiced such as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. It is yet to be known if these markets are saturated already or if there is the potential for continuous growth. But, the export data in 2015, 2016 and the first 10 months of 2017 seems to indicate that DHG export is not particularly promising. The export to the top 20 markets has been declining.

The DHG industry threatens donkey populations in other countries

According to UK based charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, there are currently 15 countries who have stood against the trade in DHG. They state that some have gone through the formal legislative route like Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, whereas others have blocked export by preventing certain things like veterinary inspections and transport permits from being issued. Fourteen of those are African whilst the other country to make a stand is Pakistan.

According to a BBC report, Burkina Faso has banned the export of live donkeys and donkey hides to China. It has regulated donkey slaughter within its borders for the protection of the population. In 2015, its donkey hide export rose from 1,000 in the first quarter to 18,000 in the fourth quarter. The number reached 65,000 in the first half of 20169. As an underdeveloped country in west Africa, Burkina Faso has 1.4 million donkeys in total1 0. Those that have been exported to China were not small in quantity.

Niger is another country that declared a donkey export ban to China. It exported 27,000 donkeys to China in 2016 and 80,000 in 2017. Driven by the high demand, the price of one donkey hide rose from $4 USD several years ago to $50 USD by 2017, while a live donkey went up from $34 USD to $100—145 USD. 

Donkeys are mainly used for  transportation and occasionally as a source of meat in Niger. The export and slaughter of a large number of donkeys threatens the local donkey population.

DHG properties are exaggerated

Chinese consumers are led to believe that DHG has great healing properties since it is so expensive. But the consumers would be disappointed if they knew the truth. The DHG they buy at the price of a “magic medicine” has less nutrition than a cabbage. The main component in DHG is actually similar to that in many daily foods i.e. protein. Crude protein and collagen protein account for 75.1% and 48.21% respectively in DHG. Although it is rich in many kinds of amino acids, only 15.98% to 20.22% of these acids are needed for the human body1 1. As a product of animal skin, the collagen protein contained in DHG could be obtained from hog skin, sheepskin or ox hide if processed by the same method of DHG production.

In February 2018 media reports said China’s official National Health and Family Planning Commission has advised consumers that ejiao is “not worth buying” and despite its many health claims is “just boiled donkey skin”. The Commission operates the official 12320 medical advice and information hotline, and tweeted that the product “is not a good source of protein” and that its health claims were at best overstated. Soon afterwards the center deleted it and apologised for publishing the article claiming it was created by others. Then according to China Daily, a nutritionist at the China Food Information Center named Ruan Guangfeng told the newspaper that the effects of ejiao have been exaggerated, and that pork, which is much cheaper, can also produce the effects claimed by the product.

Collagen protein, just like the other proteins, can only be absorbed by the human body through digestion. Judged by the nutritional value, it is an inferior protein, which is not the right kind of amino acid for the human body. It is used only as an additive in the food industry in most countries. The “panacea” DHG is no different from an ordinary food.

The claim of a special “mysterious component” in DHG is nonexistent from a scientific point of view. The process
of DHG production includes the boiling of the processed donkey hide in water for an extended period of time until it turns into jelly. Boiling can only cause general reactions such as cross-linking or hydrolysis among the edible ingredients. No new medicinal elements are generated. We can therefore say that, DHG, lacking edicinal properties, has little capacity for increasing white blood cells and platelets. It is not a medicine for improving life quality and the physical strength of an anemia patient.

Furthermore, a large number of DHG products in the market are poor in quality. To save costs, many producers use leather trimmings, horsehide and ox hide, etc. instead of donkey hide to make DHG. The heavy metal substances contained in the industrial materials might harm human health. In a random inspection by Shandong FDA in 2015, two batches of samples from a total of 100 were detected as non-conforming products12. They had a higher content of inorganic impurities which means that the manufacturers added non-biological additives in the course of the production. A Macau Daily report found that 4 groups of DHG products, selected randomly, did not conform to the industrial standards. The report also confirmed the presence of ox hide in the product. Adulteration of the product was therefore confirmed.13

In addition to the absence or small presence of the medicinal properties, poor quality DHG is more likely to contain harmful substances such as chromium, lead, mercury, arsenic and others. Chromium, found in the trimmings of leather shoes, belts and bags, is used in the production of DHG to reduce cost while lead, mercury and arsenic found in DHG comes mainly from illegal additives.14 Long-term intake of these harmful substances may cause immune system disorders, damage to the nerves, endocrine, liver and kidney systems and can cause cancer. Chromium, although a necessary microelement to human body, will cause diseases including dermatitis, gastroenteritis haemorrhagica, acute kidney failure and lung cancer if taken in excessive amounts.

Field investigation

In order to compare and verify information collected through the literature review, we under took a field investigation from October 25 to November 10, 2017, travelling more than 3,000 km to 11 counties in four provinces.

We went to DHG major production areas, locations exposed in the many negative news reports. These are the areas where DHG is produced and raw materials are supplied. These areas are deep in the countryside of Shandong, Henan, Hebei and Liaoning provinces. We had to resort to open and undercover approaches to conduct the investigation through our local contacts. Information including photos and videos were collected.

The companies we investigated included:
Shandong Dong’e DHG Holding Co., Ltd.,
Shandong Fujiao Group, Xiyantang DHG Product Co., Ltd. in Dong’e County,
Shandong Ziyangtang DHG Product Co., Ltd.,
Yuyantang DHG Product Co., Ltd. in Dong’e County,
Shandong Guyun DHG Product Co. Ltd. in Echeng town,
Shandong Yuejiazhuang DHG Co., Ltd.,
Shandong Zongdetang DHG Co., Ltd.

Place of DHG origin

Most of the DHG in China comes from Liaocheng city of Shandong province. The city is known for DHG.

It is believed that ejiao (DHG) was named after its place of origin, Dong’e of Shandong. Tao Hongjing, a famous ancient Chinese pharmacologist, stated in his work: “(It) originated in Dong’e, so named as ejiao.” Dong’e is currently Echeng town of Yanggu County, called E or Eyi in the Warring States period and changed to Dong’e County in Qin Dynasty. The production center of ejiao had experienced three major relocations. The first was moved from Echeng town to Dong’e town of Pingyin in the North Wei period. The second was moved from Dong’e town to Jinan in Ming Dynasty. The third took place after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, moving from Jinan to Dong’e County. With all three places combined as the production centers of ejiao, the Chinese name of DHG is never changed, which means that DHG production is not restricted because of geography or source of raw materials.

After development and promotion for so many years, Dong’e ejiao has become a geographical indication. Most of the DHG companies tried to link with Dong’e in every possible way for naming and promoting their own products.

Liaocheng city lies in the central plains with convenient transportation. The surrounding provinces such as Shandong, Hebei, Henan and Shanxi are major agricultural provinces with a rich supply of DHG raw materials. Harbours like Qingdao, Yantai and Rizhao in Shandong offer convenience in importing donkeys from other countries.

See full report, tables and graphs: http://hsi.org.au/assets/publications/601_ejiao-an-investigative-report-2018.pdf

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