Just Mayo may have been hit with a reprimand from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but media outlets are reporting that there may have been a conspiracy to take down the vegan-food company.
The Associated Press reports that emails released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request show high-level members of the American Egg Board (AEB), a USDA employee and an outside public relations firm discussed strategies for dealing with the eggless competitor.
The emails went as far as to detail jokes about hiring a hitman to take out Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick.
Quartz reports that in January 2014 USDA Roger Glasshoff – who was the National Supervisor of Eggshells until his retirement in July 2014 - proposed getting the FDA involved by challenging Just Mayo's label claims. AEB president Joanne Ivy gave the go ahead for doing so.
That same month the AEB paid to PR firm Edelman $43,000 to handle what they saw as a competition crisis. Edelman wrote letters to the editor, monitored the media, and paid food bloggers to write egg-friendly blog posts with USDA approved messages.
In December 2013, the AEB also asked an external sustainability contractor, Anthony Zolezzi, to convince Whole Foods to stop selling Just Mayo. Quartz writes that documents imply that he was paid to make the call. Whole Foods said it didn't have any information on the call and continues to sell the product.
The AEB also worked with Unilever when it filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek. The lawsuit was later dropped amid public outrage.
Illegal Use of Funds?
The AEB is the egg industry's checkoff program, which means egg producers pay into a collective fund that is controlled and managed by the USDA. These funds are used for advertising, promotion, consumer education and research.
Michele Simon at Eat Drink Politics writes that the AEB may have broken the law when it dipped into its funds to pay to take down a competitor.
The Egg Board's annual budget tops $23 million, and that money is federally required to be spent on egg promotion, not taking down a competitor's product. The documents uncovered here paint a picture of a government program that has strayed far from its mission. More than just a few egregious examples of legal violations, the entire campaign aimed at obstructing Hampton Creek's products is out of bounds. In addition, USDA's guidelines for overseeing the checkoff programs clearly state funds may not be used for disparaging competitors.
Last week the FDA sent a warning letter to Just Mayo stating that the health claims on the labels were misleading. The FDA also wrote that since Just Mayo isn't made with eggs, it doesn't meet the legal definition of mayo, a common nickname for mayonnaise. The FDA has yet to comment on its initial motive for sending the warning.
Media SourcesHampton Creek targeted by USDA-controlled egg industry program (Eat Drink Politics)
There is a U.S. government conspiracy against vegan mayo (Quartz)