An online retailer sells products containing donkey meat intended for human consumption. A new lawsuit alleges that’s illegal.
When Cindy first tried the Artemisia Anti-Hemorrhage Formula dietary supplements off Amazon, not knowing what she was taking in. A Californian who has been vegetarian since childhood, she had no doubt about the item’s claim of being made from “100 percent pure, natural herbs”. Yet, when scanning through the ingredients list on the back of the bottle, a strange one stood out – “gelatina nigra”. To her shock and disappointment after googling it, it turned out to be donkey.
Every year, millions of donkeys are brutally treated and slaughtered in order to make Cindy’s dietary supplement, ‘ejiao’, or donkey-hide gelatin. This animal product is believed to have numerous health benefits and so is widely sought after, leading to a dramatic population decline of the global donkey population. A 2019 report from the Donkey Sanctuary highlighted this issue, alongside a video they obtained of workers bludgeoning donkeys with hammers. “It’s not herbal,” Cindy pointed out, using only her first name for privacy reasons. “It’s literally made with donkeys – why would Amazon sell something that cruel?”
Amazon sells edible items containing ejiao in spite of several petitions asking it to stop, despite Walmart and eBay committing to stop selling these products. Evans & Page, a law firm, filed a lawsuit against Amazon last week on behalf of the Center for Contemporary Equine Studies, a nonprofit. They claim that Amazon’s continued sale of donkey-based products may be illegal, not just distasteful.
The Center for Contemporary Equine Studies is alleging that distribution and sale of ejiao, which contains donkey parts, violates California’s animal welfare law, the Prohibition of Horse Slaughter and Sale of Horsemeat for Human Consumption Act. This 1998 ballot initiative, known as Proposition Six at the time it was passed, established that horsemeat cannot be sold as a food because horses merit the same protections dogs and cats do. The Center insists this statute defines horsemeat to include all equine parts – donkeys included.
It is clear, according to Frank Rothschild, that donkeys are equines, and that selling ejiao for human consumption in California is illegal. As a scientific organization, we are not in the business of advocating for national causes. We want the defendants to stop selling ejiao because it is illegal. That’s the law.
While the center presents a reasonable argument, Bruce Wagman, an attorney who has practiced animal law in California for 30 years and is not affiliated with the complaint, does not know whether a judge would agree because the law’s wording leaves room for interpretation. The relevant statute does not really define horsemeat. But the spirit of Proposition Six is clearly to prevent people from slaughtering horses, including donkeys, for food.
This type of regulatory pressure is not unprecedented. The complaint demands Amazon stop selling ejiao immediately. If a judge finds Amazon in violation, the state of California could fine Amazon for every sale. Three California counties accuse Amazon of violating a 2004 state law prohibiting the sale of foie gras. In a settlement, Amazon agreed not to sell fatty goose liver in California and paid $100,000 in civil penalties.
TWPT scraped more than 1,000 Amazon product search results using terms such as “ejiao,” “donkey hide,” and “ass hide” to test the center’s claims, and found at least 15 edible products that contain donkey hide. While every listed item was sold by third parties, at least four were able to be shipped from Amazon’s warehouses. They had names like Chinese Special Snack Seedless, Ass Hide Glue Lumps, and Ejiao Slice.
We added several ejiao products to our Amazon shopping cart and were able to purchase them without any issue. Going through the checkout process, however, prompted notifications when we attempted to include a lightbulb that was not compliant with California’s regulations. This blocked us from completing the purchase and demonstrated Amazon’s website alerting users trying to buy prohibited items and preventing their sale. Despite this obstacle, our ejiao-filled order was sent successfully to a California address.
The Amazon spokesperson declined request for comment regarding the sale and shipment of products containing donkey meat to a California address. NSD Herbal, which sells the supplement Cindy purchased, has not yet replied.
Despite Amazon’s policies, which prevent it from selling illegal or prohibited products, its product controls have come under scrutiny on multiple occasions. In 2019, The Wall Street Journal investigated and uncovered thousands of unsafe and banned items that were available for purchase. Similarly, CNBC found expired baby formula being shipped by the company. TWPT also highlighted books that endorsed unverified treatments for autism – some of which may be potentially life-threatening.
Amazon has a lot of resources, and is a big company. “With that position comes responsibility, and if it seems that they are not adhering to state laws, then clearly they need to do better,” says Teresa Murray, director of Public Interest Research Group’s Consumer Watchdog Program. “The law is their job.”