There is a sordid industry that few people know about where wealthy corporations, some even located in the United States, exploit grieving poor people who have just lost loved ones in order to get their hands on their dead relatives. Welcome to the international trade in human tissue and its “body wranglers.”
Unlike the business of selling human organs, the human tissue industry, valued at over $1B, is only barely regulated. In the United States, the FDA is tasked with overseeing the safe import of healthy human tissue into the U.S. for surgeries ranging from knees, bladders, breasts, skin and eyes. But regulators only require a registration and a future inspection for approval. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, “of the 340 foreign tissue establishments registered with the FDA, only about 7% have an inspection record in the FDA database.” Normally, “the typical tissue bank operates for nearly two years before its first FDA inspection,” the report noted.
What is this tissue being used for? According to reports, human bodies are being recycled more and more. Corneas are being used for eye transplants. Ligaments and tendons are being harvested for knee and arm surgeries. Teeth and bone are used in dental implants. Even cosmetics companies are getting in on the act.
Despite the fact that selling human tissue is illegal, U.S. corporations have utilized the path paved by blood collection organizations. “For-profit companies set up non-profit offshoots to collect the tissue—in much the same way the Red Cross collects blood that is later turned into [commercial] products.”
The non-profit Red Cross sells the blood it collects to private firms, which then turn around and sell it to hospitals for huge profits. Over the years, this has become big business, with the Red Cross pulling in close to $100M annually.
While blood is largely a domestic commodity and is tightly controlled, the collection of tissue crosses national borders where legality and ethics come a distant second to profiteering.
For example, one investigation focused on a Ukrainian morgue in a “gritty shipbuilding region located near the Black Sea that may have been feeding the trade, leaving behind potentially dozens of . . . corpses stripped of their reusable parts,” reported the Herald. These parts include veins, arm tissue, leg tissue and bones.
Take RTI Biologics. In 2011, the company made $169M. RTI buys human tissue from its German subsidiary, Tutogen. And because the tissue comes from the European Union, import regulations are lax. The Herald quoted Dr. Martin Zizi of the University of Brussels as saying: “If I buy something from Rwanda, then put a Belgian label on it, I can import it into the U.S. . . .Once a product is in the European Union, it can be shipped to the U.S. with few questions asked.”
But with money on the line, that human tissue can come from anywhere, even within the United States. The Herald reported: “Ground-level body wranglers in the U.S. can get as much as $10K for each corpse they secure through their contacts at hospitals, mortuaries and morgues. Funeral homes can act as middlemen to identify potential donors. Public hospitals can get paid for the use of tissue-recovery rooms.”