How A Little Mayo Cracked the Big Egg’s Industrial Stronghold

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The average American eats about one egg a day. When we consider 319 million people cracking 365 eggs a year, it's no wonder “egg farmers” have 276 million laying hens—that’s a lot of eggs on a mind-boggling industrial scale.

If you’ve never heard of the American Egg Board (AEB), you are not alone. This USDA-run industry group is responsible for promoting eggs (remember the “incredible edible egg” ad campaign?). Things got a little more complicated a few weeks ago when news reports brought to light how AEB was actively trying to take down an up-and-coming vegan mayo company.

Hampton Creek, a San Francisco-based food company using food technology to try to shift America to a more sustainable diet, makes Just Mayo, a vegan, pea-protein-based mayonnaise. Notice how we called it “mayonnaise?” Makers of egg-based mayonnaise do NOT think that Hampton Creek (HC) should be able to use that moniker.  In fact, about a year ago, Unilever, the owner of Hellman’s mayo, sued HC on those grounds. They later dropped the suit, in part due to positive talks between HC and Unilever.

Meanwhile the AEB took a similar stance on Just Mayo’s name, but instead of a lawsuit, they went the Death Star route and apparently launched a two year “conspiracy” to take down HC.

Michelle Simon, lawyer and sustainable food advocate, reported emails that were uncovered by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) between members of the AEB. According to Dan Charles of NPR, these emails were obtained through FOIA, because even though the AEB is funded by private industry money, the USDA oversees its operations.

Simon uncovered ways the AEB pushed the FDA to investigate Hampton Creek, authorized interference of sales of Just Mayo, and launched questionable PR tactics against Hampton Creek...among other things. Quoted by Charles, Simon points out that much of this activity is potentially illegal:

Checkoff programs like the Egg Board are legally required to stay within the boundaries of advertising, promotion, consumer education, and research. Specifically not allowed are lobbying activities. The statute says that no funds shall “be used for the purpose of influencing government policy or action."

Hampton Creek remains unmoved, and perhaps even more motivated, by this latest debacle. They have been criticized by the food industry for a while now, and this even seems to be part of CEO Josh Tetrick’s design. In a recent interview on NPR’s Here and Now, Tetrick explains that his goal is to shake up the food system, and that kowtowing to big businesses and government agencies—and changing the name of their product—is not in his plan.

We started with this big idea of what would it look like if we could rip away our preconceptions and our habits and how we think about things, and start a food system that actually works for everyone...so it wasn’t entirely unexpected...remember, we’re not a mayo company, we’re a company that’s trying to build a food system that has a lot more impact...that is not degrading the planet...it becomes a slippery slope when you enable people to frame you as an alternative, and we’re not going to stand for that.”

And while Hampton Creek is working to shake up the egg industry, consumers are as well. The influence of consumers’ conscious carnivorism and more ethically minded food choices took another leap forward this week when McDonald’s USA announced it will shift to purchasing only cage-free eggs over the next ten years. Considering the amount of eggs that McDonald’s buys (around 4% of the total eggs produced in the U.S.!), this move will surely shake up the egg industry. As Stephanie Strom of the New York Times reports, McDonald’s move may raise egg prices, but also shows America’s continued movement toward more humane treatment of animals. As Strom reports, many other big egg users are moving to cage free as well:

The Compass Group, Sodexo and Aramark, three large food service suppliers that the Humane Society of the United States estimates buy roughly one billion eggs a year in total, also have said they will use only cage-free eggs. And this year, Walmart established new guidelines for suppliers that, among other things, indicated it would show preference to those using cage-free hen housing.

While we know that many cage-free egg facilities are still not the ultimate solution for inhumane treatment of animals, this all marks a step in the right direction. And it wouldn’t have happened without consumers’ involvement.

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