Death threats. Paying off journalists. Threatening letters. Are these tactics used by Don Corleone in “The Godfather”? Or is it our own government’s efforts, perhaps with agribusiness lobby interests pushing them along, confronting what they seem to think is a major threat: a food company called Hampton Creek. Let’s review the turn of events.
It all started with the idea two friends had in creating a business that could utilize plant proteins in creating food that’s healthier, more affordable, sustainable and humane. Working out of a large garage in San Francisco, the company — eventually named Hampton Creek after one of the founder’s dogs — launched its first product, “Just Mayo,” on to the shelves of Whole Foods Market.
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests divulged emails detailing the plot that the American Egg Board (a government-supervised board) and its counterparts in the U.S. Department of Agriculture conspired to take down — at the time — this small startup because of Hampton Creek’s decision to use plants, rather than eggs, as ingredients.
And, before we go on, it’s important to note that the Egg Board, which represents the industrial egg industry, is mandated by law to solely promote its own products and is forbidden to stifle competitors. Regardless, here’s what they did:
Contracts were signed to hire online journalists to denigrate Hampton Creek. A consultant was paid to convince Whole Foods to drop “Just Mayo” (he wasn’t successful). The world’s largest PR firm was brought in to run a covert communications operation against the company. Advice was given to a top food corporation on legal strategy to take on Hampton Creek.
One email exchange included irritation toward Hampton Creek’s CEO, climaxing with, “Can we pool our money to put out a hit on him?” In response to that threat, was there outrage and a call to rescind those words? Nope. The American Egg Board official responded that he could “contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn” to see to the matter.
Emails also revealed that the American Egg Board and USDA lobbied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to go after Hampton Creek. The agency more than happily obliged by sending a threatening letter to Hampton Creek that its products couldn’t be sold because of an early 20th-century guideline that a product labeled “mayonnaise” had to contain eggs.
Hampton Creek’s product, of course, doesn’t contain eggs, but it also doesn’t have the word “mayonnaise” on its label. After the public’s negative reaction to FDA’s bizarre focus of resources on this company, the agency backed down, allowing the company to make a minimal change to meet their view of regulatory compliance.
So how is it that a young company selling mayo, dressings, and cookies already has drawn the ire of obsession from animal agribusiness and its government agencies allies?
According to publicly disclosed government emails, Hampton Creek is viewed as a “major threat” and a “crisis” to industrial animal agriculture. One reason is its work disrupting a food system where the status quo benefits billion-dollar industries but comes at the expense of public health and the environment. Another is that Hampton Creek galvanized elected officials from both the right side of the political spectrum, such as U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and those on the left, such as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, to work to reform how our government is beholden to powerful special interests in our country’s agribusiness sector.
At issue was not only agribusiness’ government relationship leading to attacks on Hampton Creek. It’s also agribusiness-friendly legislators introducing a bill that would ban the very Freedom of Information Act efforts that caused the Hampton Creek conspiracy to be publicly outed in the first place. That legislation would also help prevent the public from ever learning what else agribusiness and government agencies are doing when it comes to Hampton Creek. If there’s nothing to hide, why work so hard to prevent the public from knowing?
To make matters even more corrupt, agribusiness, working with its USDA supporters, even garnered a whopping $12-million payoff by our government for products the egg industry couldn’t even sell. There were no strings attached, no promise to pay back the bailout, just a government gift. As award-winning investigative journalist Will Potter wrote, “A plant-based company purchases $77k of its own mayo, and the government is concerned. The USDA, with tax dollars, purchases $12 million of unwanted eggs from egg corporations, and it’s business as usual. Something strange is going on here.”
Due to public pressure for accountability on the government’s actions against Hampton Creek, USDA launched an internal investigation into the matter. Keep in mind that government emails containing the death threats, unlawful lobbying, and journalist payoffs are all public. Yet years have gone by and no action has been taken. (Of note, agribusiness’ FOIA elimination bill would prevent the public from knowing much, if not all, of what the investigators did or didn’t do when it comes to this matter.)
Juxtapose the speed of this fairly obvious investigation with how quickly the government leaped at the chance to go after Hampton Creek. As an example, government emails show how the PR firm hired to go after the company was asked to provide daily updates to American Egg Board officials so a rapid response against the company could occur.
The Hampton Creek story as it relates to the agribusiness/government partnership symbolizes what so many have been feeling for so long. Government agencies, particularly in food, serve to protect major campaign contributors and corporate interests more so than the ordinary American. It’s time for all of us, whether you’re a family farmer, a mom trying to get by, or an elected official looking to make a positive impact for your constituents, to say enough is enough.
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