We love official-sounding things—they make us feel safer (right, National Rifle Association?)–especially when it comes to our food. The Specialty Food Trade, the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, and the American Soybean Association are just a few of our industry trade groups. But as official as they sound, food industry boards and associations are most often fronts for corporate interests. They use the government, ask favors of politicians, and as we recently discovered, they’re not always honest.
Just last month, the American Egg Board was outed for attempts to thwart the ambitious sales and marketing efforts of Bay area startup Hampton Creek over its popular eggless mayonnaise product called Just Mayo.
“Emails as far back as 2013 detail how the board attempted to respond to what it considered a ‘threat’ from Hampton Creek,” reports The Hill. “During that time, the board tried a number of aggressive tactics to bring the company down. It lobbied retailers like Whole Foods and paid tens of thousands to a public-relations firm to craft messaging that food bloggers could use to convince people to avoid Just Mayo and discredit Hampton Creek.”
Hampton Creek has experienced rapid growth in its short life (the company is less than five years old and already available in thousands of U.S. retail locations)—but it’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to sales of traditional mayonnaise made with eggs.
In 2013, Joanne Ivy, then egg board president, sent an email to her organization's public relations consultants at Edelman. "It would be a good idea if Edelman looked at this product as a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business," she wrote.
While the egg board and other trade associations are overseen by the government (USDA in this case), their loyalties lie within their industry and members, not the American public.
“From pork to popcorn to watermelon to Christmas trees, these boards use the federal government to support the success of their chosen industry,” reports The Hill. Their job, however, is not in taking down competing products as the American Egg Board attempted, but finding ways to promote their interests. (We all know how successful the "Got Milk" campaign has been for the dairy industry.)
Hampton Creek has now been warned by the FDA that its product—the eggless Just Mayo—cannot be labeled as mayonnaise because it fails to meet federal definitions for mayonnaise, namely the inclusion of eggs. While it’s not clear yet how Hampton Creek will adjust its product to reflect the FDA ruling, it’s clear the company is not going away.
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"If we're successful, there are a lot of [food] industries out there that are going to have to adjust," Hampton Creek founder Josh Tetrick told NPR.
Trade industries have been taking action against competing vegan and vegetarian brands for decades. Using the words “cream” or “milk” on nondairy products has been a point of contention with the dairy industry, forcing the booming nondairy industry to come up with creative workarounds. And remember Oprah Winfrey and “Mad Cowboy” Howard Lyman being sued by Texas cattle ranchers for merely mentioning on her show their disgust over processed meat?
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to sniff out the mystery here: the livestock industry fears the success of vegan and vegetarian brands in the same way that livestock animals shriek in fear as they enter the slaughterhouse. Does that mean that we’re at the beginning of the Great Vegan Takeover? Maybe. But more likely, it just means consumers are going to get louder in demanding two things: options and transparency. It’s clear why Big Food would fight against this—which is why it’s also clear they won’t win.
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