this Dec. 3, 2013 file photo, Hampton Creek Foods CEO Josh
Tetrick bowl of a species of yellow pea used to make Just
Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, in San Francisco. The
American Egg Board, which is responsible for the
“Incredible, Edible Egg” slogan, waged a campaign to
counter the rising popularity of Hampton Creek’s eggless
Just Mayo spread, and even tried to stop it from being sold
at Whole Foods, according to documents provided to The
NEW YORK — A
California company that makes an eggless mayonnaise alternative
has the U.S. egg industry scrambling.
The American Egg
Board, which is responsible for the "Incredible, Edible
Egg" slogan, waged a campaign to counter the emergence of
Hampton Creek's Just Mayo spread, and even tried to prevent its
sale at Whole Foods grocery stores, according to documents
provided to The Associated Press.
offer a sometimes comic glimpse into the alarm the egg group felt
about the startup and its CEO, Josh Tetrick, who has said he wants
to make the food system more environmentally friendly by replacing
the eggs in an array of foods with plant-based alternatives.
"You want me
to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a
visit?" one egg board executive wrote to another, presumably
American Egg Board has sought to downplay Hampton Creek as just
another egg substitute and has avoided referring to it by name.
But emails showed the board was troubled by the media attention
being showered on Hampton Creek, which counts Microsoft co-founder
Bill Gates as an indirect investor through Khosla Ventures.
At one point, the
egg board commissioned a public relations campaign called
"Beyond Eggs Outreach" — a reference to Hampton
Creek's previous name. The effort spanned three months and
included paying bloggers to tout the benefits of real eggs.
provocations seemed to cause consternation.
In late 2013, a
representative for the PR firm Edelman alerted board executives
that Hampton Creek had "just engaged with us directly on
Twitter" to challenge it to a bakeoff. The representative
advised the board to keep close tabs on reactions to the post —
but not to respond.
That was in line
with previous advice from an Edelman executive, who compared the
situation to a political campaign, where real eggs are the
incumbent or "800 lb. gorilla" and Hampton Creek is the
insurgent. He said engaging would help legitimize Hampton Creek.
imagine Hillary Clinton today agreeing to a debate to a little
known, left-wing member of her party?" the PR executive
In an emailed
statement Tuesday, American Egg Board CEO Joanne Ivy noted
interest in egg replacers has grown.
response, we bolstered efforts to increase the demand for eggs and
egg products through research, education and promotional
activities," Ivy said.
She said such
activities are "common within the consumer products
The attempt to
stop the sale of Just Mayo at Whole Foods raises regulatory
The American Egg
Board had revenue of $23.5 million last year and is supposed to
promote the $5.5 billion egg category. It is one of several
national programs that promote commodities like pork and beef with
funding from producers. The programs are overseen by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, which makes them quasi-governmental
The USDA did not
respond this week as to whether the egg board overstepped its
mission by trying to stop the sale of a potential competitor. But
Roger McEowen, director of the Center for Agricultural Law and
Taxation at Iowa State University, said it appears the board went
beyond its authority.
could be made that they're not in the business of preventing other
products from being sold," he said.
Tetrick said Hampton Creek is considering asking for a
congressional investigation into possible violations by the board
and calling for greater oversight by the USDA.
The emails by egg
board executives were obtained through a public records request by
Ryan Noah Shapiro, a Freedom of Information Act expert at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his attorney, Jeffrey
Light, who specializes in FOIA matters.
Hampton Creek co-founder Josh Balk and provided the documents to
the company, which provided them to The Associated Press.
According to the
documents, Ivy emailed consultant Anthony Zolezzi on Dec. 3, 2013
saying she would "like to accept your offer to make that
phone call to keep Just Mayo off Whole Foods shelves."
The call by
Zolezzi apparently didn't work, since Whole Foods sells Just Mayo.
Zolezzi said this
week he made the offer because he felt Just Mayo's packaging was
misleading. He also thinks eggs are an efficient source of protein
and doesn't agree with eliminating them in favor of plant-based
He did not recall
who he called at Whole Foods, and the company said it was not
aware of any such calls.
also indicate Hellmann's mayonnaise maker Unilever reached out to
the egg board for support in its lawsuit accusing Hampton Creek of
false advertising last year.
Ivy said she
advised Unilever to ensure the FDA was aware that Just Mayo does
not have eggs, as required by the regulatory standard for
declined to comment, ended up dropping the suit. But this month,
the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Hampton
Creek saying Just Mayo is misbranded because it does not contain
Jennifer Dooren said the letter was a follow-up to a complaint the
agency received, but could not disclose who made it.
who specializes in food regulatory issues at Manatt, Phelps &
Phillips in Washington, D.C., thinks the complaint will be tough
for Hampton Creek to dismiss. Mayonnaise is defined as having
eggs, and "mayo" is widely considered shorthand for
exactly how it is with no changes seems like quite an uphill
battle," Wasserman said.
said he is in talks with the FDA and is confident Just Mayo will
keep its name. And despite the egg board's actions, he noted
Hampton Creek has continued to attract investors.
one of the world's leading crisis management firms, Edelman, but I
don't think it had any affect at all," he said.