This post has been updated.
Hampton Creek, the food technology company, has apparently been the subject of much discussion at the American Egg Board—an egg research and promotion program overseen by the US Department of Agriculture.
Newly released documents show high-level members of the American Egg Board, a USDA employee, and an outside PR firm discussing strategies for dealing with Just Mayo, Hampton Creek’s plant-based mayonnaise substitute, the Associated Press first reported.
In an August 2013 email, Joanne Ivy, president of the American Egg Board, refers to Just Mayo as “a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.” The email concluded with the line: “‘What are we doing at AEB with regard to this competing product??’ We need to have an answer!”
The records were disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a public records expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his lawyer, Jeffrey Light, who specializes in FOIA matters, according to the AP. Representatives of the American Egg Board could not be immediately reached by Quartz to comment on the documents, but Ivy told the AP the board “bolstered efforts to increase the demand for eggs and egg products” amid the growing interest in egg substitutes, and that the actions it took are ”common within the consumer products industry.”
Several of the emails obtained were posted online by Hampton Creek and food lawyer and activist Michele Simon. They indicate that the egg board came up with several tactics—some of them perhaps illegal, one critic charges—for dealing with Just Mayo.
In January 2014, Roger Glasshoff of the USDA proposed challenging Just Mayo’s labeling claims with the US Food and Drug Administration. “I would forward the information to the FDA District Office responsible for the location where the product was marketed,” he wrote. Ivy responded with the green light.
The FDA issued a warning letter in August 2015. It declined to comment on its motivations to Quartz, but the letter listed violations including making unauthorized health claims and misleading consumers by using the term “mayo” along with a picture of an egg, when the product is actually not standardized, egg-based mayonnaise.
Update (Sept. 3, 2015, 2:20 p.m.): A USDA spokesperson told Quartz, “By law, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is charged with providing oversight, ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders. AMS does not condone any efforts to limit competing products in commerce… The National Shell Egg Supervisor in AMS [Roger Glasshoff] regularly fields questions from those seeking regulatory and labeling guidance. The National Shell Egg Supervisor has no role in the oversight of the American Egg Board. In this case, he fielded a call about a regulatory question and simply referred the inquirer to the correct regulatory authority. In reviewing documents, AMS has not discovered any inappropriate actions by the now retired National Shell Egg Supervisor that would fall outside of his responsibilities.”
But that was only one piece of a multi-pronged strategy, the emails show. In December 2013, the American Egg Board also asked Anthony Zolezzi, an external sustainability contractor, to place a call with Whole Foods asking the grocery chain to remove Just Mayo from its shelves. Internal American Egg Board documents imply that he was paid for the service. Ivy wrote to a colleague, “I feel sure he wants to be paid for doing it. If it is that easy, I will contact Anthony and remind him to make the call unless his price is too steep.”
Whole Foods, which still sells Just Mayo, said it had no information regarding any such call.
Zolezzi was not immediately available to respond to Quartz’s inquiry. According to the AP, Zolezzi said he offered to help the egg board because he considered Just Mayo’s packaging to be misleading and doesn’t think removing eggs from people’s diet and replacing them with plant-based foods is a good idea.
In January 2014, there were also discussions about a campaign to get bloggers to include promotions for eggs in their posts. An account executive at Edelman sent an email to the egg board telling them about the key, “USDA-approved” messages that these bloggers would “weave into their blog posts” to “encourage their readers to make a conscious decision to choose real and sustainable foods, like eggs, on their path to a healthier lifestyle.”
As Simon points out on her blog, EatDrinkPolitics.com, at least a few bloggers took the bait: She found posts on two food blogs that were “strikingly similar” in how they sang eggs’ praises, both mentioning the American Egg Board. (Here and here.) Fooducate, billed as a blog and app for healthy diets, let the board sponsor a post on its site. Some readers, calling it irresponsible, weren’t happy. Edelman was.
A contract for services outlines $43,000 paid to Edelman for its campaign.
Update (Sept. 3, 2015, 11:42 a.m.): A representative from Fooducate told Quartz that it is not “a co-conspirator against Hampton Creek” nor has it “been played by the American Egg Board.” The representative said, “We’ve been writing about the health benefits of eggs pretty much since we started Fooducate. … As part of our ad sales activities we reach out to healthy brands and commodity boards to spend their ad dollars to reach our audience. “
Edelman did not immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment.
But wait, there’s more: The egg board also worked behind the scenes with Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, to try to deal with the Just Mayo “crisis,” November 2014 emails from Ivy show. Unilever had filed a suit against Hampton Creek in October of that year alleging that Just Mayo, because it’s not made with eggs, isn’t actually mayonnaise. It withdrew the suit a few months later.
Unilever did not immediately respond to Quartz’s request for comment.
And just for good measure, both an executive at food company Hidden Villa Ranch and an executive at the egg board made jokes—more than a year apart—about killing Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick.
“In the meantime, you want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit?” proposed American Egg Board executive Mitch Kanter in December 2013.
“Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?” asked Mike Sencer of Hidden Villa on Oct. 31, 2014.
Neither the American Egg Board nor Hidden Villa immediately responded to Quartz’s request for a comment on the emails.
According to Simon, a number of laws were likely broken in the American Egg Board’s attempt to quash its egg-free competitor. “Egg Board money is legally required to be spent on the promotion of eggs, not on tearing down a competitor,” she told Quartz.