According to Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, the AEB went “way beyond its mandate” by allocating resources that should be devoted to promoting eggs on covert attempts to thwart the progress of his San Francisco-based company, which makes the fast-growing egg-free spread Just Mayo and other plant-based products.
Tetrick was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by Ryan Shapiro and Jeffrey Light and documented by the Associated Press and The Guardian suggested that the AEB had engaged in a concerted attempt* to undermine Hampton Creek via actions that went beyond its official remit, which is “to increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion.”
Tetrick – who has himself been taking some heat in recent weeks over the decision to label his firm's flagship egg-free spread Just Mayo (which prompted an FDA warning letter alleging the name violated federal labeling laws) – told us that “legal action is clearly warranted”.
We are calling for a Congressional investigation
The job of the AEB - which receives funding from a national legislative checkoff on all egg production from companies with 75,000+ hens in the continental United States – is to “promote chicken eggs and do research on eggs”, said Tetrick.
“But they went way outside their mandate… and any time they go outside that mandate they are breaking their charter.”
Among other things, he alleged: “They paid someone to call Whole Foods to attempt to block the distribution of our product; they attempted to join The Association for Dressings and Sauces to lobby against what we are doing, which is expressly against their charter [which says the AEB must not engage in lobbying activities]; and they paid bloggers to write about us without [those bloggers] making it clear that they were paid [by the American Egg Board].
“So they were engaged in numerous illegal activities, so as part of that we are calling for a Congressional investigation into what happened, and we’re optimistic that Congress takes us up on that. We are talking to leaders on both sides of the aisle about potentially investigating some of the things that are out there.”
He added: “This [call for an investigation] is not about helping our business but because the very idea that a company that is attempting to do things in the world of sustainable goods is being stymied by a US government program seems somewhat strange.”
AEB: Responding to misinformation is a core purpose of AEB
However, the American Egg Board told FoodNavigator-USA that it had paid close attention to Hampton Creek owing to the firm’s "misinformation-campaign regarding the production processes and environmental impact of eggs" and argued that "responding to misinformation is a core purpose of AEB and is consistent with the AEB Congressional mandate to conduct consumer education and promotion to strengthen the egg industry's position in the marketplace".
Director of Marketing Communications Serena Schaffner also rejected allegations that the AEB had pushed the FDA to go after Hampton Creek, adding: "No one at AEB or anyone acting on its behalf ever contacted the FDA about Hampton Creek."
And while Unilever "did reach out to AEB regarding its lawsuit against Hampton Creek", she said, it was told that "AEB could not be a party to its lawsuit or provide assistance related thereto.”
Anthony Zolezzi believed Just Mayo’s packaging was misleading and on this basis, offered to alert his contacts at Whole Foods to that fact
Regarding the most serious allegation – the alleged attempt to block the distribution of Just Mayo at Whole Foods - she said: "Anthony Zolezzi, a food industry consultant, believed Just Mayo’s packaging was misleading and on this basis, offered to alert his contacts at Whole Foods to that fact. Mr. Zolezzi has never received compensation from AEB. Whole Foods continues to sell the products in their stores."
Meanwhile, emails referring to threats to Josh Tetrick (‘You want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn and to pay Mr Tetrick a visit?’) were clearly made "in jest" although the AEB admits they were in "poor taste", she added.
As for the paid bloggers, she said, they "disseminated positive messages about eggs", and "did not disparage Hampton Creek in any way". Moreover, she said, "In all cases, the bloggers’ connection to AEB was disclosed within the posts."
AEB has never used check-off funds for lobbying purposes
Regarding the attempt to become a member of the Association for Dressings and Sauces allegedly for lobbying purposes, she said that "AEB has never used check-off funds for lobbying purposes," and that the emails referring to the attempt uncovered by the FOIA requests were from 2012 and were therefore "not germane to the Hampton Creek issue".
Moreover, she said, "USDA Guidelines for Oversight of Commodity Research and Promotion Programs do not prohibit Boards from paying membership or sponsorship fees to industry associations or other groups in order to become a member. The Guidelines do require the association or group to certify that those funds were not used for the purpose of influencing government policy or action.
"However, AEB did not reach this step in the process because the Association for Dressings and Sauces determined that AEB did not fit its membership criteria. AEB has never been a member of the Association for Dressings and Sauces."
Our singular focus is on supporting the American egg farmer
Finally, she added: ”Our singular focus is on supporting the American egg farmer and communicating the value of the incredible edible egg.
"AEB closely monitors the egg and egg products industries, including egg replacers. When interest in this category is heightened, we increase communications surrounding the demand for eggs and benefits of real egg products through research, education and promotional activities. These activities include working with industry thought-leaders, conducting paid social media strategies and liaising with partner organizations.
"Our mission remains ensuring a safe and ample supply of eggs, educating consumers about the nutritional benefits of eggs, especially as they are faced with new egg replacement options and correcting any misinformation in the marketplace.”
Hampton Creek: We’re confident of finding common ground with the FDA
Asked whether he had had any further conversations with the FDA about the warning letter (click HERE) advising him that Just Mayo did not comply with federal standards of identify for the labeling of mayonnaise, Josh Tetrick told FoodNavigator-USA: “We’re going to sit down with them but I’m confident we can find common ground.”
Asked whether an intervention by the AEB or by Unilever (which dropped a false advertising lawsuit against Hampton Creek late last year but issued an enigmatic statement saying it hoped the firm would take ‘appropriate steps’ with regulatory authorities) had prompted the FDA to look at Hampton Creek, he said: “These are separate issues [the AEB FOIA allegations; the Unilever lawsuit; the FDA warning letter].
“It’s the FDA’s job to look for discrepancies in what they see in the market and labeling regulations, and we look forward to having more positive conversations with them.”
Asked whether the constant media attention was distracting him from running his business, he said: “Absolutely not. The vast majority of the team is focused on driving technology and commercializing products; we’re growing like crazy and recruiting phenomenal people.”
Meanwhile, the fact that Hampton Creek had just raised an additional $15m in investment capital from Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co (which says it will “use its networks in Japan and overseas to develop a plant protein business in Asia”) highlighted the confidence investors had in Hampton Creek, he said.
“The consequence of all this [media attention] is that it gives us an opportunity to show why we started Hampton Creek in the first place. We started doing this to make an impact and that’s what we’re doing.”
*For a detailed account of the FOIA requests, read this report by Michele Simon in EatDrinkPolitics.