Two years ago, the Big Egg industry began trying to take out a startup vegan mayo brand called Just Mayo, which uses pea protein instead of eggs.
As shown in a series of hundreds of emails that became public on September 2, the American Egg Board wrote that the product was a “crisis” and a “major threat” and asked a consultant to try to get it taken off the shelves at Whole Foods. An egg industry executive joked that the group should “put a hit” on the CEO of Hampton Creek, the startup that makes the product.
The plans went beyond slimy business practices: The Egg Board is run by government, and under the USDA’s agency rules, they aren’t allowed to fight against competition. As the mayo wars continue getting headlines, Hampton Creek is hoping to use the attention to help push for some changes in the food system.
“The USDA exists to support healthy food, support farmers,” says Josh Tetrick, CEO and founder of Hampton Creek. “So the fact that the stuff the USDA is supposed to be focused on wasn’t being done–that’s a concern.”
Just Mayo’s problems started in November 2014 when Unilever–the giant behind Hellmann’s Mayonnaise–filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek for calling its vegan product “mayo” when it doesn’t have eggs. The newly revealed emails show that the Egg Board was talking to Unilever about that, too.
Since the emails came out, Tetrick has talked with “numerous congressional members” about the USDA’s mandate. If it exists to promote healthy food–and sustainable agriculture–why is it attacking a resource-efficient, cholesterol-free alternative to eggs?
“It’s given us a chance to talk about how the food system needs to be rethought,” Tetrick says. “The more that our policy leaders can be thinking about that, it’s always going to be better for what we believe in.”
He sees it as one of countless ways that food and agriculture needs to change. “The food system is so bungled and so archaic across so many different layers, that it’s not just one company that addresses it, and it’s not just one policy that addresses it,” he says. “There are so many different ways that we can fix food. The USDA should be a part of supporting all of that stuff, not favoring one path over another.”