The health-giving qualities of placenta are currently creating a buzz in Western countries, where some believe it can help ward off postnatal depression, improve breast milk supply and boost energy levels.
But placentophagy — the practice of eating one’s placenta after birth — is relatively common in China, where it is thought to have anti-ageing properties, and dates back more than 2,000 years.
“It is in the refrigerator now and I am waiting for my mother to come and cook it to eat. After cleaning, it can be stewed for soup, without that fishy smell,” Wang said, adding she believed it would help her recover from delivery.
Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a unified China, is said to have designated placenta as having health properties some 2,200 years ago, and during China’s last dynasty, dowager empress Cixi was said to have eaten it to stay young.
China’s state media says the practice of eating placenta has re-emerged over the past decade. One maternity hospital in the eastern city of Nanjing reported that about 10% of new parents took their placenta after childbirth. Internet postings swap recipes on how to prepare placenta. One popular health website suggests soup, dumplings, meat balls or mixing it with other kinds of traditional Chinese medicine.
While trade in the organs has been banned since 2005, pills containing placentas ground into powder are legally available in Chinese pharmacies — indicating unwanted placenta is somehow making its way to drug companies.
Strong demand has created a thriving black market with hospitals, medical workers and even mothers selling placentas in violation of the law. Last year, police investigated a hospital in the city of Guangzhou for selling placentas for 20 yuan ($2) apiece.
Last month, South Korean customs said they had uncovered multiple attempts to illegally import over 17,000 capsules apparently containing the powdered flesh of dead babies.
Experts have said the pills may actually be made from human placenta, raising concerns that China’s trade in the organs has started to go international.