Members of the USDA-sponsored American Egg Board should have known before they threatened a vegan mayonnaise competitor that that the not-so-funny joke in corporate board rooms these days is that the new nick-name for e-mail is “evidence mail.”
The UK Guardian has published hundreds of leaked e-mails from an Egg Board server that that appear to demonstrate that Egg Board members might be willing to use violence to prevent Whole Foods Market from expanding the sale of Hampton Food’s “Just Mayo” across the United States.
Just Mayo is a full-fat, expeller-pressed canola oil mayonnaise alternative created by Hampton Creek, a San Francisco start-up, which was first released in Northern California Whole Foods Markets on September 19, 2013.
As a plant-based version of the real thing, Just Mayo quickly created a lot of social media buzz for its realistic taste. Just Mayo has already expanded to include original, garlic, chipotle and sriracha flavors.
The eggless product supposedly took two years to create by a research and development team at Hampton Creek that screened 1,500 plants before discovering eleven that were suitable for the emulsification purposes in a mayonnaise. The plant used to replace the egg in Just Mayo is a specific variety of the Canadian yellow pea.
With the roll-out starting to hammer the sales of the iconic Hellmann’s and Best Foods brand mayonnaises, the Unilever multi-national parent filed a lawsuit last year against Hampton Creek for false advertising. Unilever argued that Just Mayo cannot be marketed as a mayonnaise, because it does not meet the definition of the product specified by the Food and Drug Administration that requires a “mayonnaise” to contain 65% vegetable oil and at least one egg yolk as an ingredient.
Unilever emphasized that although Just Mayo never says the word “mayonnaise” in its label or advertising, it uses “egg-oriented imagery” on labels and promotional materials as “part of a larger campaign and pattern of unfair competition by Hampton Creek to falsely promote Just Mayo spread as tasting better than, and being superior to, Best Foods and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.”
Despite Hampton Creek CEO Joshua Tetrick’s denial of any wrongdoing and arguing that Unilever’s lawsuit was solely meant as an effort to hinder competition, Hampton Creek agreed to work with “industry groups and appropriate regulatory authorities” to resolve labelling issues, and the suit was dropped last December. Last month, however, the FDA sent Hampton Creek a letter, that industry participants refer to as a “nasty gram,” warning the company indicating that misleading labeling of a product that must contain eggs under FDA standards is a violation of law.
Yet some disgruntled or downright ashamed person, presumably at the egg association, leaked a series of extremely nasty e-mail “evidence” to the Guardian newspaper. The evidence suggests just how far the association was prepared to go to stop Just Mayo.
One egg association member wrote: “Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?” A vice president of the board added, “You want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit?”
Hampton Creek CEO Joshua Tetricks seemed shaken by the revelations when he was interviewed by CBS: “This is an agency of the United States government,” he noted.
Despite the threats, Hampton Creek intends to unveil a line of new eggless products that includes “Just Dressing”; “Just Pancake Mix”; “Just Cookie Dough”; and an eggless plant-based scramble.
The American Egg Board responded with this statement: “We are aware of the comments made by an American Egg employee. While these comments were clearly made in jest, they were inappropriate and do not reflect out organizations values. We apologize for any offense.”
Apology or not, the threat is now evidence under law. If Hampton Creek finds out about any dirty tricks, the Egg Board–and, potentially Unilever–could be in for big trouble.