In one of the more unsettling news articles I’ve come across today, it’s reported that South Korean Customs are stepping up their inspections after reporting over 35 discoveries of smuggled capsules, hidden in tourists luggage and international mail, originating from China and which contain powdered human flesh.  They’ve confiscated approximately 17,500 capsules disguised as stamina boosters between August 2011 and March 2012, with the accused smugglers claiming that they had no idea what the ingredients or manufacturing process were for their gruesome cargo.

Now we who are fortunate enough to have unrestricted access to Aspirin, Paracetamol/Tylenol and Viagra feel comfortable having a giggle at China’s expense when it comes to their alternative medicines, and with healing traditions dating back over 2,000 years there are certainly a huge number of odd ingredients.  However, I do feel that there is a natural beauty to their traditions, with their beliefs based on the philosophy that the body is a mini universe of overlapping systems, fuelled by a life force called Qi (pronounced chee), and various natural treatments are needed to keep the different systems working harmoniously.

Unfortunately, besides more straightforward components derived from plants, mushrooms, insects and reptiles, some of these ancient treatments involve controversial ingredients including rhinoceros horn (to treat fever), tiger penis (to improve virility), shark fin (served in a soup, to improve overall health), flying squirrel poo (either consumed raw to invigorate the blood, or deep fried to stop heavy bleeding), bear bile (to treat a number of things including heart disease and fever) and a whole list of human-derived ingredients.

Some of these ingredients include the consumption of placentas (to treat impotence, increase sperm production and improve male and female fertility), and also the odd practice found in Dongyang, a city in Eastern China, where each spring the residents enjoy eggs that have been cooked and marinated in the urine of young virgin boys, collected from local Primary School toilets.  Reports state that the smell emanating from the egg ‘kitchens’ is distinctive and unforgettable.  The eggs are claimed to contain energy-boosting and restorative abilities, and in addition some claim that they prevent heat stroke, improve blood circulation, and reduce pain.  The fact that the urine is harvested from toilets that contain more than just pee (let’s face it, little boys don’t just tinkle in the toilet), and that the ‘tradition’ has only been going on for about 20-years, hints at this being a treatment that has no real foundation in traditional Chinese medicine, and being just another one of the disturbing new breed of health treatments.

Which brings us back to our original horrible subject of capsules containing powdered human flesh being intercepted by South Korean Customs.  This was a story originally reported on by South Korean TV channel SBS that broadcast a documentary in August 2011 concerning capsules made from the flesh of dead babies being produced and distributed by China.  The SBS team claimed to have travelled to China and located the hospital that sold the ‘materials,’ as well as capturing the video of the manufacturing process.

China robustly denied such claims, stating that all their hospitals operate a strict management of disposal of infant and fetal remains as well as placentas, however capsules purchased by the SBS team while in China and subsequently brought back to South Korea were tested and found to contain content that was 99.7% identical to human materials.

Unfortunately, just how the babies died before they found themselves in powdered form is not known, and rumours persist about Chinese pharmaceutical companies working closely with abortion clinics, as well as the babies coming from families who abandon their infants to die.  There is also no information on whether the capsules contained predominately female fetuses or not, however with such a product being manufactured in a country where female children are viewed as a curse and frequently discarded, it’s all too easy to darkly speculate on the situation.  The SBS documentary reported that the dead fetuses were stored in a completely normal household refrigerator so as to not arouse suspicion, and the bodies were then moved to a medical drying microwave before being ground up into powder and inserted into capsules.

It’s quite sad that after so many years of battling the slaughter of endangered species that feed the traditional medicine market, the protection of humans now needs to be added to that list.

The Marmot’s Hole, a blog run by Robert J Koehler who is a magazine editor living in Seoul and a 10-year-resident of Korea, compiles information about Korea for general consumption, and has posted a link to the untranslated original documentary by SBS, along with a link to a translation of part of the program.

The capsules have not been found to contain any health benefits whatsoever, despite the belief of traditionalists that they are an effective panacea (or cure-all) for disease, and instead have been reported to contain super bacteria and other harmful ingredients.  It would seem that newly emerging ‘traditional’ remedies seem to call for increasingly horrific ingredients, with the more taboo or disturbing the ingredient the better the alleged medicinal benefits.  Whether or not this is a direct result of increasingly devastating diseases and viruses plaguing humans and being resistant to straightforward medicine is anyone’s guess, but most societies that cling to traditional medicinal remedies are definitely seeing a rise in taboo treatments for modern afflictions.

Personally, although very horrified by this dark path that traditional medicine has taken, I do find it interesting that while we are understandably disgusted by the practices pushed into the light by such discoveries and go wild with sensationalising and speculating about the negative health benefits such products could induce, we are absolutely fine with our own ‘advanced’ companies pursuing greed above the greater good when it comes to our food chain and, while there will be a much deserved outrage over the renewed interest in human flesh capsules being manufactured in China, we have no problem with forcing cannibalism upon animals that we ourselves eat, and promptly bury news stories that relate to our own dark practices carried out daily in our modern Western world.

For years we have been putting rendered cattle parts into animal feed which has been directly linked to the rise in mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy/BSE), and despite this disease having proven that it can make the leap from animals to humans in the form of vCJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), no-one has taken the step of banning the use of animal proteins in animal feed, choosing instead to lightly restrict which parts of cattle can be fed back to cattle while still allowing loopholes to occur (animals that have been already been fed rendered cattle can themselves be rendered and fed back to cattle, which could easily allow mad cow agents to infect healthy animals), and The Union of Concerned Scientists has compiled a very interesting article on the things that we allow to enter our food chain.

Although I know that consuming powdered human flesh is absolutely abhorrent, will inevitably come with its own medical complications and in no way competes in terms of the taboo of human consuming human, I don’t feel that a handful of wealthy Chinese and Korean traditionalists who are prepared to consume something forbidden compares to the size and scale of the potential problem and medical fallout if things go wrong for the millions of humans who regularly eat meat that has been polluted by cannibalistic practices in the name of profit, and which has already repeatedly resulted in deadly outcomes.

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