When Cindy first tried the Artemisia Anti-Hemorrhage Formula dietary supplements that she purchased on Amazon, she had no reason to suspect that she was eating donkey. A California native and lifelong vegetarian, she assumed that the world’s largest online retailer had vetted the bottle’s claims of being made from “100 percent pure, natural herbs.” But while reading the back of the bottle, she noticed an ingredient she hadn’t seen before: “gelatina nigra.” She googled it, and what she found made her stomach turn.
Every year, millions of donkeys are slaughtered and skinned to make the so-called gelatina nigra found in Cindy’s dietary supplement. More commonly called “ejiao” or “donkey-hide gelatin,” the animal product is made from donkey skin. It’s in such high demand due to its alleged health benefits that it’s decimating the global donkey population and has led to increasingly brutal treatment of the animals, according to a 2019 report by the Donkey Sanctuary, an advocacy organization. A video the organization obtained shows workers in Tanzania bludgeoning donkeys with hammers to meet their slaughter quotas. “It’s not herbal. It’s literally made with donkeys,” says Cindy, who asked to go by only her first name for privacy reasons. “Why would Amazon sell something that cruel?”
While some retailers like Walmart and eBay have committed to drop products that contain ejiao, edible items containing this ingredient are widely for sale on Amazon in spite of multiple petitions asking that it stop selling them. A legal complaint filed in California last week by the Center for Contemporary Equine Studies, a nonprofit, claims Amazon’s continued sale of these donkey-based products is more than distasteful—it may be illegal.
The Center alleges that Amazon’s distribution and sale of ejiao violates an obscure California animal welfare law called the Prohibition of Horse Slaughter and Sale of Horsemeat for Human Consumption Act. The 1998 ballot initiative, known at the time of its passage as Proposition Six, makes the sale of horsemeat for human consumption a crime on the grounds that horses, like dogs and cats, are not food animals and deserve similar protections. The Center is arguing that, under the statute, horsemeat is defined to mean any part of any equine, including donkeys.
For Frank Rothschild, director of the Center for Contemporary Equine Studies, the law is clear: Donkeys are equines, and the sale of ejiao for human consumption in California is illegal. “We are a scientific organization and not in the business of national advocacy. We want the defendants to stop selling ejiao because it’s illegal,” he says. “That’s the law.”
Bruce Wagman, an attorney unaffiliated with the complaint who has practiced animal law in California for 18 years, says that while the center presents a reasonable argument, it’s unclear whether a judge would agree because the law’s wording leaves room for interpretation. “Horsemeat is not really defined in the text of the relevant statute,” he says. “But the spirit of Proposition Six is absolutely to prevent equines, including donkeys, from being slaughtered for people to consume. Period.”
The complaint demands that Amazon stop selling ejiao immediately. If a judge ultimately finds Amazon in violation of the law, the state of California could fine Amazon for each sale. This type of regulatory pressure is not unprecedented. In 2018, prosecutors in three California counties accused Amazon of violating a 2004 state law banning sales of foie gras. In a settlement, Amazon agreed not to sell the fatty goose liver in California and paid $100,000 in civil penalties.
To test the center’s claims, WIRED scraped more than 1,000 Amazon product search results using terms like “ejiao,” “donkey hide,” and “ass hide,” and found at least 15 edible items that claim to contain donkey. These items had names like Chinese Special Snack Seedless, Ass Hide Glue Lumps, and Ejiao Slice. In total, we found that while every listed item was sold by third parties, at least four were available to ship from Amazon’s warehouses.
Amazon’s website typically alerts users who attempt to purchase items banned in their state and blocks their sale. We filled an Amazon shopping cart with these edible products and went through the checkout process to see whether Amazon would deliver them to a California address. At no point did we encounter any notifications that the items couldn’t be shipped to California. However, when we added a lightbulb to our cart that is not compliant with California state regulations, Amazon prevented us from completing our purchase. We were ultimately able to purchase several ejiao products and successfully ship them to a California address.
Amazon spokesperson Amanda Cruz declined WIRED’s request to comment on the sale and shipment of products containing donkey meat to a California address. NSD Herbal, which sells the supplement Cindy purchased, did not yet respond to a request for comment.
Though Amazon has policies against selling illegal or prohibited products, it’s possible that the distribution of ejiao, if illegal, has evaded the company’s content moderation. Amazon has often come under fire for its lax product controls. In 2019, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal found thousands of unsafe and banned products for sale on the site. A CNBC report that same year revealed Amazon was shipping expired baby formula. WIRED also found books on Amazon peddling scientifically unproven and potentially fatal “treatments” for autism.
“Amazon is a big company that has tons of resources. With that position comes responsibility, and if it seems like they aren’t abiding by state laws, then clearly they need to do better,” says Teresa Murray, director of the Consumer Watchdog Program at the nonprofit Public Interest Research Group. “It’s their job to know the law.”