Sellers of Donkey Gelatin, a Chinese Cure in Crisis, Seek a State Remedy



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

news outlets warn that the diminishing supply has attracted a flood of fake stand-ins for donkey gelatin, a popular traditional medicine. 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, braying deal.

Fortunately, there are experts and politicians at hand with solutions.

“The government should support donkey breeders by offering subsidies to encourage more breeding,” Qin Yunfeng told Xinhua, the state news agency, in a report on Thursday.

Mr. Qin has sterling qualifications. Xinhua called him a “state-level expert” on “ejiao,” the name for the rubbery substance extracted from boiled donkey skin that is reputed in traditional medicine to replenish the blood, coughs and insomnia, and offer a general boost.

Mr. Qin is also chairman of Dong’e Ejiao, a company in Shandong that promotes itself as the gold standard in donkey gelatin. As a member of the provincial legislature, 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.

But the donkey 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. “Slaughtering a donkey that’s done milling” is a Chinese saying for when a valuable person is demeaned, and old donkeys were indeed often used for their meat and hides.

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.

Still, many Chinese people remain sure of the curative benefits of donkey gelatin, and demand remains high. (Foreigners, however, have sometimes been confounded by the English names used on some brands of gelatin: “asses’ glue” or just “ass glue.”)

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 began using the skins from mules, horses, pigs and oxen to produce counterfeit tonics,” Xinhua said. “In some cases, people have even used shoes.”

Bu Xun, a researcher from the Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, explained to Xinhua: “It is very difficult to differentiate donkey skin from mules and horses, making it easy for manufacturers to get away with fake products.”

Mr. Qin, the donkey gelatin magnate, has vowed not to rest until breeders get more support. Last year, he submitted a proposal to the Shandong Province legislature: “Donkey breeders should enjoy equal treatment with cattle and sheep breeders.”

“Until the problem of treatment for donkeys is solved, he will keep making proposals,” a news website in Shandong reported.

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