USDA's Egg Board Cracks Under Pressure, Launches Attack on Vegan Startup

Claire Bernish
September 10, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) San Francisco, CA — When the U.S. government-backed American Egg Board perceived the future of the egg industry was in “crisis” due to a “major threat,” it launched a massive targeted attack campaign to squash small Silicon Valley vegan startup, Hampton Creek — but did the Egg Board cross the line?

“Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?” asked Mike Sencer, executive vice president of AEB member organization, Hidden Villa Ranch — ostensibly joking about Hampton Creek’s founder Josh Tetrick in one of a collection of emails obtained by The Guardian. Following in the same vein, executive vice president of the AEB, Mitch Kanter, volunteered he could “contact some of [his] old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit.”

Hampton Creek’s plant-based egg alternative ostensibly became Enemy #1 to the AEB and its outgoing CEO, Joanne Ivy — perhaps because of the rather prominent attention the small, San Francisco-based company has received. With support from Facebook backer Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures and others, Hampton Creek has accumulated $120 million in funding.

Recently, the company signed a deal with the world’s largest catering company, Compass, and is seeking other contracts with businesses traditionally associated with the egg industry.

Apparently, the board felt the threat to the $5.5 billion-per-year egg industry was a matter of such grave importance that Edelman — the world’s largest PR firm — was brought in to coordinate the attack plan.

According to a review of AEB internal emails by The Guardian, the campaign to crush Hampton Creek — called “Beyond Eggs” after the company’s original name — sought to:

  • “Pay bloggers as much as $2,500 a post to write online recipes and stories about the virtue of eggs that repeated the egg lobby group’s ‘key messages.’”
  • “Confront Andrew Zimmern, who had featured Hampton Creek on his popular Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods and praised the company in a blog post characterized by egg board executives as a ‘love letter.’”
  • “Target publications including Forbes and Buzzfeed that had written broadly positive articles about a Silicon Valley darling.”
    • Recruit autism and animal rights activist Temple Grandin, as well as bestselling author and blogger Ree Drummond, to show public support for the egg industry — an ultimately unsuccessful attempt.
  • “Buy Google advertisements to show AEB-sponsored content when people searched for Hampton Creek or its founder Josh Tetrick.”

Besides the egg alternative, Hampton Creek’s other product — Just Mayo — was also subject to the vindictive focus of the lobby. Emails revealed the extent of efforts between the AEB, USDA, and the egg industry as a whole.

In fact, the eighteen members of the AEB’s board are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, so there is a prohibition on “any advertising (including press releases) deemed disparaging to another commodity,” according to an unnamed public health secretary as reported in The Guardian.

“Ads considered disparaging are those that depict other commodities in a negative or unpleasant light via either video, photography, or statements,” said attorney Michele Simon of Foscolo and Handel after reviewing the emails. “The entire contract with Edelman violates this rule.”

Disparaging content, however, is not the only prohibited item.

In the very law that created the AEB, the rules state that “no funds collected by the Egg Board under the order shall in any manner be used for the purpose of influencing governmental policy or action.”

Documented in emails dated January 2014, the USDA’s head of shell eggs, Roger Glasshoff, had already begun to train his attention on Hampton Creek. He advised Ivy to contact the Food and Drug Administration regarding labeling concerns with Just Mayo.

“I would forward the information to the FDA District Office responsible for the location where the product was marketed,” urged Glasshoff in an email. “I believe that many labels currently in commerce do not comply with the FDA’s labeling policy.”

Later that year, in November, the manufacturer of Hellman’s, Unilever, filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek over Just Mayo for false labeling since the product does not contain any eggs.

“I just got off the phone with a guy working the Unilever case with Hampton Creek,” Ivy wrote to United Egg Producers head of government relations, Howard Magwire. “He wanted me to say we support Unilever in this lawsuit against Hampton Creek, but I told him that we could not take a position. However, since regulation requires egg in mayo and the product does not, I said that they should make sure that the FDA is aware to address this situation. I feel sure they are aware, but maybe they need to be pushed.”

Coincidentally enough, even though Unilever dropped its lawsuit in December, the FDA ruled last month that Just Mayo must change its name.

However, Tetrick asserted there will be no changes to the Just Mayo name.

“The American Egg Board did not take a position on the Unilever and Hampton Creek lawsuit and did not contact the FDA regarding Just Mayo,” said Ivy in a statement to The Guardian.

Tetrick — the first to see the emails once the FOIA request was granted — appears to be taking the mess in stride.

“I’m not entirely surprised that some industries that are lost in the past a little bit are fighting so hard,” he said. “Even though it was joking, some of those notes about putting a hit out — that’s some reckless stuff.”


This article (USDA’s Egg Board Cracks Under Pressure, Launches Attack on Vegan Startup) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Claire Bernish and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. If you spot a typo, email edits@theantimedia.org.

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