When members of the American Egg Board heard about Just Mayo, the egg-less vegan mayonnaise, they decided something had to stop this new threat to the egg industry. But they went too far. The British Guardian published leaked e-mails from an American Egg Board server that contain compelling evidence the board’s leadership may have violated federal laws and administrative regulations governing check-off programs.
In response, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling for an investigation into the American Egg Board (AEB) and their alleged anti-competitive campaign against Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo.
The 600 pages of emails suggest that members of the AEB staff, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, and top executives from the egg industry engaged in a strategic, multifaceted campaign to use the power and resources of the federal government to undermine the economic prospects of the start-up Hampton Creek, based on their fear that Just Mayo represented a threat.
One Bad Egg Spoils the Vegan Brunch
Two years ago, the board’s president, Joanne Ivy, sent an email to its public relations consultants at Edelman, saying it would be a good idea if they “looked at this product as a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.”
Just Mayo is a canola oil mayonnaise alternative that replaces the egg with a Canadian yellow field pea. It was first sold by Whole Foods Markets in 2013. The product created a lot of excitement among consumers because it closely resembles the real thing. As a result, it has been challenging the sales of Hellmann’s and Best Foods brand mayonnaises.
Last year, the parent company of Hellmann’s, Unilever, filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek for false advertising, arguing Just Mayo can’t be marketed as a mayonnaise because it doesn’t meet the definition established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires mayonnaise to contain 65 percent vegetable oil and at least one egg yolk.
Unilever admitted that Just Mayo doesn’t call itself mayonnaise, but it does use “egg-oriented imagery.” Hampton Creek CEO Joshua Tetrick denied any wrongdoing, but agreed to work with regulatory authorities to resolve the labeling issues. The lawsuit was later dropped.
That wasn’t the end of it. In August, the FDA sent a warning letter to Hampton Creek, telling them to stop promoting Just Mayo for violating federal regulations. But leaked emails to the Guardian, which reveal conversations among AEB members about how to make a complaint to the FDA, call into question whether the board influenced the FDA.
Egging On the Hard-Boiled Hit Men
The emails also show just how far the AEB was willing to go to stop Just Mayo. One member wrote, “Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?” A vice president of the board responded, “You want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit?”
The AEB responded, saying the statement was only in jest, but the emails seemed to violate the spirit of special rules that govern government-industry partnerships, and Lee wants to get to the bottom of it. The AEB is supposed to promote eggs, not undermine competitors or influence the FDA.
Not only is Lee calling for an investigation, but he is also questioning the very existence of the AEB.
“If these Great Depression-era institutions have outlived their purpose, and if evidence suggests they behave like state-sponsored cartels that intimidate and handicap their competition, should Congress continue to authorize them,” Lee asks in the letter to Vilsack.
Lee says he has never tried Just Mayo, but he is a “huge fan of mayonnaise and is committed to preventing Big Egg from threatening what should otherwise be a dynamic and competitive mayonnaise market.”