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The US egg lobby is afraid of plants

Plant-based Just Mayo product seen as 'a crisis and major threat' to egg industry, emails show

Hampton Creek / Facebook

The US egg industry worked closely with a government official and a major public relations firm to target Hampton Creek, The Guardian reports, on the belief that the food company's plant-based mayonnaise represented a threat to its business. Emails obtained under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that the American Egg Board (AEB), egg industry executives, and an official from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) discussed several strategies to bring down Hampton Creek and its Just Mayo mayonnaise alternative, which outgoing AEB president Joanne Ivy described as "a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business" in an August 2013 email.

San Francisco-based Hampton Creek is a food technology startup with a focus on developing plant-based products. The company launched in 2011, and has garnered $120 million from major Silicon Valley funders. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered Hampton Creek to change the name of its Just Mayo line of plant-based mayonnaise, saying that it violates federal regulations that require mayonnaise-branded products to contain eggs. The FDA also said that the product contains too much fat to be marketed as "heart healthy."

A concentrated campaign to protect the egg

According to the emails, USDA official Roger Glasshoff suggested that the AEB reach out to the FDA about Just Mayo's labeling in January 2014. The AEB represents US egg farmers and is tasked with promoting the $5.5 billion industry. Its board is appointed by the secretary of agriculture, and the law that created it prohibits the organization from using its funds "for the purpose of influencing governmental policy or action."

The AEB targeted Hampton Creek through other channels, as well. In 2013, the organization asked external consultant and "eco-entrepreneur" Anthony Zolezzi to persuade Whole Foods to remove Just Mayo from its shelves. (The product is still available there.) The AEB also hired the Edelman public relations firm to pay bloggers to write about the benefits of eggs, according to the Associated Press, which also saw the emails, while Ivy advised Unilever during its 2014 lawsuit against Hampton Creek. Unilever, which makes Hellman's mayonnaise, dropped the suit in December. Other emails include off-hand jokes about hiring people to kill Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick.

The 600 pages of emails were first obtained by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a FOIA expert at MIT, and attorney Jeffrey Light. They were first sent to Hampton Creek, which provided them to the press.

In a statement to The Guardian, Ivy said that Zolezzi was never paid for his services, and that the AEB never contacted the FDA. She also denied taking a position in the Unilever suit. In an email statement, a USDA spokesperson said that the agency's employee, a now-retired national egg shell supervisor, directed AEB to the FDA in response to an inquiry; the USDA body charged with overseeing the AEB has reviewed the case and has not found any evidence of inappropriate behavior, the spokesperson added.

Hampton Creek, meanwhile, says it will not rename its suddenly controversial vegan spread, despite the FDA's instructions. "We don’t have any plans on changing the name," Tetrick tells The Guardian. "Names matter, and they influence people. We want to connect to the everyday person who’s shopping at the Dollar Tree or shopping at Walmart."

This article has been updated to include a response from the USDA.