By Anusha Bradley of RNZ
The world's biggest producer of placenta serum has invited the Prime Minister to their Central Hawke's Bay factory upon her return to New Zealand.
During one-on-one talks with the Thai Prime Minister in Bangkok, Jacinda Ardern was caught by surprise when Prayut Chan-o-cha named sheep placenta cream as an example of how the two countries could work more closely together on high-value agricultural goods.
While Ardern, and her Trade Minister Damien O'Connor were seemingly in the dark on the issue, New Zealand-made placenta products were hugely popular in many Asian countries, Agri-Labs Co-Products owner Angela Payne said.
Her Waipukurau factory produced and exported not only sheep placenta, but also horse, pig, deer and cow placenta which cosmetic and supplement companies from all over the world bought to make their products.
"Depending on what circles you mix in, sheep placenta is really well-known, and in Central Hawke's Bay I'm known as the Placenta Queen because I've been collecting it for years."
More than 20 years in fact, with the company making sales of around $2.5m a year.
"Our largest customers are United States, Japan, Canada, Malaysia, Korea and Australia."
Eager to rectify the blank faces on Ardern and her Trade Minister Damien O'Connor upon hearing about sheep placenta cream, Payne invited her to visit.
"I emailed her about two seconds after the story broke to invite her to come and visit us...so she can be better briefed for her next trade visit."
Placenta products had been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to improve skin health and stress and while the cosmetic products "got all the publicity" the bigger market was in supplements, she said.
"Sheep placenta as a dietary supplement ingredient is absolutely rich in amino acids. It's full of all sorts of nourishment and in many markets where they are into placenta they see it as a management tool for stress."
One Auckland souvenir store owner told RNZ placenta creams and pills were "very popular" with tourists from South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia.
Deer placenta was more expensive and therefore more highly sought after than sheep placenta products.
"The creams are very popular. Visitors will buy them in bulk and some Asian residents living here will take them as gifts when they go home. It's for beautifying the face and skin."
However, there was no scientific evidence to support these claims, New Zealand Dermatological Society president Louise Reiche said.
"There it's popular because people believe that using newborn products that have got lots of growth factors in them will be higher in nutrient value and they think the collagen base will help to restore collagen lost in skin as it ages.
"But the problem is those very large molecules don't penetrate through intact skin."
Quality food and sun protection were the only scientifically proven things to improve skin, Dr Reiche said.
It was also not clear how large the local or international placenta products market might be. Statistics New Zealand did not collect such figures and several agricultural analysts and academics contacted by RNZ said it was not something they had looked into.