Human placentas, banned by law from trade, are now selling like hotcakes on the country's popular e-commerce platform where many customers purchase, cook and eat them as medicines believed to cure infertility, despite the danger of catching diseases.
Some sellers on Taobao.com told Shanghai Daily that they have purchased the placentas secretly from maternity and child care hospitals.
Although the trade violates the national ban on selling placentas because they may contain viruses, the sellers say they have dealt with hospitals safely for months, as they have friends or relatives working there.
"My wife works as a nurse in the maternity hospital to ensure that the placentas come from healthy mothers," said a vendor in eastern Zhejiang Province surnamed Xu.
Huzhou Maternity and Child Care Hospital in Zhejiang has been listed by one seller on the platform as his official "purchase channel" to get human placentas whenever new babies are born.
A Shanghai Daily reporter under cover as a placenta dealer called the hospital but an official said they no longer sell the placentas because "the supply of human placentas is not even enough for the hospital's staff workers."
The official, who refused to be named, said the reporter can still purchase human placenta "blend" made by the hospital that can be used instead of a whole placenta.
In response, Huzhou police said they would investigate the hospital and punish it if it proved to be selling placentas.
Meanwhile, seller Xu revealed that when human placentas are in short supply, some sellers will purchase animal placentas and process them into similar shapes as human ones.
"The process is really simple," said Xu. "They select animal placentas the same size of humans', drain the blood and dry them in the sun. Then they have the golden-like dried placentas which have a similar appearance and even the same taste as a human's."
Such dried "human" placentas are being sold on Taobao at prices ranging from 50 yuan (US$7.85) to 450 yuan each. Some vendors concentrate the placentas into capsules and sell them in bottles. Fresh human placentas, which look purple, are more expensive and buyers have to order in advance.
According to the online sellers, human placentas are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine because they contain substances believed to cure conditions that include asthma, menstrual disorders, impotency and most of all, infertility. Some buyers purchase fresh placentas, cook and eat them in soups, while others take concentrated pills or capsules.
The placenta supplies oxygen and nutrients to the fetus during pregnancy and allows fetal waste to be disposed of via the mother's kidneys. But placentas can be infected during labor or carry viruses such as hepatitis B or HIV from the mother, doctors said.
The animal placentas, which are often used without any screening, are more dangerous, warned doctors.
Shanghai Health authorities said yesterday that so far they haven't found illegal trading of human placentas in the city's hospitals.
An official surnamed Wang with Fudan University's Maternity and Children Health Hospital said mothers of newborns may decide whether they take the placentas.