American Egg Board Targets Vegan Mayo Start-Up
HBO’s Silicon Valley may have wrapped up its season, but fans of the show looking to satisfy their cravings for some tech start-up drama might do well to follow the real-world saga going on over at Hampton Creek, the tech-driven food upstart that seems to be ruffling a lot of feathers in its bid to revolutionize the processed-food industry by replacing eggs with plant-based ingredients in a host of products.
Just like the fictional start-up Pied Piper on Silicon Valley, Hampton Creek and its CEO, 35-year-old Josh Tetrick, have managed to garner starry-eyed accolades—and loads of venture capital—from some of Silicon Valley’s most notable names, while at the same time being beset by one plot-twisting headache after another. The latest dramatic turn came on Wednesday, when news broke that a major egg-industry group was trying to halt the company's rise—and maybe take a hit out on its CEO?
The fledgling company has already been forced to fend off a lawsuit from Hellman's owner Unilever, a David-versus-Goliath contest in which the food giant cried foul over Hampton Creek’s marketing of its popular eggless sandwich as mayonnaise—an emulsion of oil and egg yolks, as those who author history would have you believe—only to drop its suit in the wake of bad publicity. Unilever was then vindicated last week when the FDA declared anything marketed as mayonnaise must include some type of egg. Adding to the drama, Hampton Creek was being hailed as a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum while simultaneously defending itself against allegations of unsavory business practices lodged by a cadre of disgruntled employees and chronicled in Business Insider.
But Now in what may be described as the season’s biggest shocker, it appears no less than the American Egg Board has engaged in a stealth campaign to undermine Hampton Creek’s egg-free ambitions, even going so far as to try to keep Just Mayo off the store shelves at Whole Foods, according to the Associated Press.
As with other such organizations intended to promote American agricultural commodities such as pork and beef, the American Egg Board isn’t a government agency—not exactly. Its funding, to the tune of $23.5 million last year, comes from the multibillion-dollar egg industry, but it’s overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thus beyond the questions raised as to whether the egg board dramatically overstepped its bounds when, instead of limiting itself to such promotional activity as paying bloggers to extol the virtues of eggs or even hiring a powerhouse PR firm to help counter the glowing press coverage of Hampton Creek, it actually tried to stop the sale of Just Mayo in the retail market, there’s the larger issue of the USDA’s complicity in the Big Ag status quo. In what capacity should the taxpayer-funded department even be in the business of promoting beef or pork or eggs, given these industries hardly seem to be in need of government support, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a reputable doctor to advise that we should all be consuming more animal products than we already do?
The AP report is based on documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request made by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a FOIA expert at MIT, and attorney Jeffrey Light, who in turn shared them with Hampton Creek. The company provided them to the news organization. Similar to any number of corporate hacks that have taken place recently, the emails from egg board officials and others contracted by the organization provide some embarrassing behind-the-scenes fodder, as when one egg board executive wrote to another, hopefully joking: “You want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay [Hampton Creek CEO] Mr. Tetrick a visit?”
Get Shorty meets vegan "mayo"? Now there may just be a 21st-century TV hit in the making after all.