Recent articles published by The Guardian and the Associated Press (AP) reported that members of the American Egg Board (AEB), a government-backed lobbying group, engaged in a long-running campaign intended to debilitate sales and distribution growth of Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo, a product that is formulated without eggs.
Hampton Creek, a food startup focused on the development of plant-based products, recently received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the name of its Just Mayo brand. The agency takes issue over use of the word “mayo,” noting in its letter that the Code of Federal Regulations requires products labeled as mayonnaise to be made with eggs. According to The Guardian and the AP, the FDA’s action was tied to a sustained effort by members of the AEB to discredit Hampton Creek.
The AEB is funded via a levy of twenty cents on every case of eggs sold by its constituent members, and its board’s members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.
Part of the law that established the Egg Board states “no funds collected by the Egg Board under order shall in any manner be used for the purpose of influencing government policy or action.”
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) expert Ryan Shapiro and FOIA-specialist attorney Jeffrey Light requested documents and emails from the AEB, which were cited in the AP and Guardian articles. The emails indicated that some on the lobbying board, including former AEB head Joanne Ivy and AEB executive vice president Mitch Kanter, were extremely concerned about the potential for decreased egg consumption as a result of companies like Hampton Creek. On a basic level, board members tried to discredit the Hampton Creek’s science, and enlisted its research arm, the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC), to examine the patent for Just Mayo. Feedback from the ENC was that the patent wasn’t strong and that the AEB should focus on nutritional benefits of eggs.
Beyond the product itself, the AP reported that the AEB also attempted to weaken Hampton Creek’s sales by trying to convince an individual close to the leadership team of Whole Foods Market to get the retailer to drop the product line. The AEB also retained Edelman Public Relations and asked the agency to examine “the product as a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.” The group also invested in paid Internet campaigns designed to bolster positive information about eggs amid searches for the term Hampton Creek and even Joshua Tetrick, the company’s founder.
It also appears that the AEB provided some guidance to consumer products conglomerate Unilever during the company’s lawsuit against Hampton Creek. Unilever, which markets mayonnaise brands Best Foods and Hellmann’s, claimed that the Just Mayo product name is misleading to consumers. While the suit was eventually dropped, based on emails obtained via the FOIA, Ivy spoke with Unilever attorneys and encouraged them to alert the FDA regarding the company’s concerns.
Speaking with the AP, FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Dooren said the warning letter was in fact due to a complaint the agency received, but could not provide insight into who made the claim.
The AEB emails also include Kanter joking about placing a “hit” on Tetrick as well as having “Brooklyn Buddies” visit the entrepreneur.
Tetrick told the AP that Hampton Creek is considering a response to the released emails, including a congressional investigation into violations.