The Ministry of Health expressed great concern Tuesday over South Korean media reports indicating that Seoul customs authorities had seized a batch of medicine from China that used the dried-up remains of dead infants as its main ingredient.
"We have ordered the Department of Health of Jilin Province to launch an immediate investigation into the reported case," ministry spokesman Deng Haihua said at a press conference.
"China has strict regulations on disposing of the remains of infants, fetuses and placentas. We are firmly against the trading of human bodies or organs. We demand that health departments at all levels strengthen administration in this regard," Deng said.
On Saturday, South Korea's SBS TV reported that a Chinese hospital sold dead infants and placenta to an underground factory that manufactures pills.
In the report, an undercover SBS news team followed their unnamed source to a house in China, where a woman claimed to have stored dead babies in her refrigerator as an ingredient for making the pills.
The team purchased some capsules from the woman and sent one to South Korea's National Forensic Service for tests, which showed that the ingredients of the capsules had a 99.7 percent match with human DNA.
The report said that there was an underground network that manufactured and sold the capsules to South Korea, but did not specify locations or names.
The SBS report came after an earlier report by the Shin- Dong-A magazine, which said the capsules were made in northeastern Yanji and Tumen cities, both under the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin.
The magazine said workers in the underground factories dried infant corpses in microwave ovens before grinding them into powder to make the capsules.
It said the pills are sold to South Korean traders at 500 won ($0.46) per capsule. They were then sold under the names of "infant capsule" or "fetus powder" in South Korea, where the price for each pill could reach 8,000 won.
"The South Korean government is aware of the reports and has started investigating the alleged underground network," an official from the South Korean embassy in Beijing told the Global Times on condition of anonymity.
"South Korean customs are trying to track down any buyers or sellers. The authorities do not have any evidence so far that supports the documentary's allegation, but human ingredients would certainly be considered illegal in South Korea – if it is really happening," the official said.
Jia Qian, head of the National Traditional Chinese Medicine Strategy Research Project, told the Global Times that placenta and umbilical cords have been used for making traditional Chinese medicines.
"But as far as I know, Chinese medicine has never used dead infants or fetuses as ingredients," Jia said.
Liu Zhanglin, vice-chairman of the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Medicines and Health Products, echoed Jia's remarks.
"I cannot accept it (using dead infants as ingredients). If the report is true, I will firmly condemn it," Liu told the Global Times.
According to the Bencao Gangmu, or The Compendium of Materia Medica, written by Li Shizhen (1518–1593), one of China's greatest physicians, the placenta is highly nutritious, and long-term intake can keep the hearing and eyesight sharp and bring longevity.
In August 2009, the Qingdao-based Bandao News reported that in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, some restaurants offered placenta dishes at around 500 yuan ($77.75) each.
"Many customers tried the dishes as they heard about the health-giving ability of the placenta," the newspaper quoted a chef as saying. "We bought the placenta for 300 yuan each from local hospitals."
The chef said the dishes were not on the menu and were only offered to regular customers.
Deng, from the health ministry, stressed Tuesday that organizations or individuals are forbidden from selling or buying placenta.
According to Chinese laws and regulations, human corpses cannot be traded or be treated as medical waste. Medical institutions are required to send them to crematoriums or negotiate with families of the deceased for proper disposal.
However, there have been some cases in China where the remains of dead infants have been mishandled.
In March 2010, 21 infant corpses were found in a river in Jining, Shandong Province, after they had been dumped there by two workers at a local hospital who had treated the corpses as medical waste.
The Jining government later announced a regulation to further clarify how to dispose dead infants. It said the local government will shoulder the cost of cremation if families cannot afford it.
Huang Shaojie and Park Gayoung contributed research for this story