US body brokers profit by supplying world with torsos, limbs and heads
On July 20, a Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship departed South Carolina carrying thousands of containers. One of them held a lucrative commodity: body parts from dozens of dead Americans.
According to the manifest, the shipment bound for Europe included about 2,721kg of human remains valued at $67,204 (€54,353).
To keep the merchandise from spoiling, the container's temperature was set to -15 degrees Celsius.
The body parts came from a Portland business called MedCure. A so-called body broker, MedCure profits by dissecting the bodies of altruistic donors and sending the parts to medical training and research companies.
MedCure sells or leases about 10,000 body parts from US donors annually, shipping about 20pc of them overseas, internal corporate and manifest records show. In addition to bulk cargo shipments to the Netherlands, where MedCure operates a distribution hub, the Oregon company has exported body parts to at least 22 other countries by plane or truck, records show.
Among the parts: a pelvis and legs to a university in Malaysia; feet to medical device companies in Brazil and Turkey; and heads to hospitals in Slovenia and the United Arab Emirates.
Demand for body parts from America - torsos, knees and heads - is high in countries where religious traditions or laws prohibit the dissection of the dead. Unlike many developed nations, the US largely does not regulate the sale of donated body parts, allowing entrepreneurs such as MedCure to expand exports rapidly during the last decade.
No other nation has an industry that can provide as convenient and reliable a supply of body parts.
Since 2008, Reuters found, US body brokers have exported parts to at least 45 countries, including Italy, Israel, Mexico, China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Most donor consent forms, including those from MedCure, authorise brokers to dissect bodies and ship parts internationally. Even so, some relatives of the dead said they did not realize that the remains of a loved one might be dismembered and sent to the far reaches of the globe.
"There are people who wouldn't necessarily mind where the specimens were sent if they were fully informed," said Brandi Schmitt, who directs the University of California system's anatomical donation program. "But clearly there are plenty of donors that do mind, and that don't feel like they're getting enough information."
MedCure shipments are now the subject of a federal investigation. Last November, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the company's Portland headquarters. Though the search warrant remains sealed, people familiar with the matter say it relates in part to overseas shipping. MedCure is cooperating with the investigation, said its lawyer, Jeffrey Edelson. He declined to comment on the FBI raid, but said: "MedCure is committed to meeting and exceeding the highest standards in the industry. It takes very seriously its obligation to not only deliver safe specimens securely, but to do it in a way that respects the donors."
Mr Edelson also said MedCure "partners with government and industry agencies to follow and exceed requirements for shipping human tissue", and that "shipping handlers, drivers and carriers are specially trained for the safe handling and transportation of human specimens". (Reuters)