This could be the Watergate of the sandwich condiment world.
A major scandal has been brewing in the mayonnaise world over the last few months. If you don't closely follow egg news that might come as a surprise, but the story keeps getting juicier, and now the United States Department of Agriculture is facing a lawsuit over the whole thing.
The saga reveals how far some Big Agriculture insiders are willing to go to prevent consumers from having access to different kinds of food, which is something that should matter to anyone who doesn't think publicly-funded groups ought to decide what Americans can and can't eat.
It all started back in 2014, when Unilever—the company that make Hellman's mayonnaise—tried to sue Hampton Creek, a small food startup that makes a vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo. Unilever accused Hampton Creek of false advertising because, according to the Food and Drug Administration, a product must contain eggs to call itself mayonnaise.
Unilever later dropped the lawsuit, but not before it piqued the interest of Ryan Shapiro, a PhD candidate and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) expert at MIT and Harvard. If Hellman's was this threatened by a vegan mayo, he wondered about the American Egg Board, a marketing group funded by farm taxes collected by the government.
"It was clear the egg industry viewed Hampton Creek as a genuine threat," he told me.
Shapiro and Jeffrey Light, an attorney with FOIA expertise, filed a request at the end of 2014. By September last year, they had a stack of damning documents, which revealed the Egg Board had tried to sabotage the sale of Just Mayo. Joanne Ivy, then-president of the Board, called Just Mayo a "major threat" and a "crisis" to the egg product business and tried to get the Board's marketing firm Edelman to campaign against Hampton Creek. According to the emails, members of the Board tried to persuade the FDA to go after Just Mayo for mislabeling and even tried to strong arm Whole Foods into taking the product off shelves.
"It would only take a single call to Whole Foods to have them not take the Mayo," Ivy wrote in a December 2013 email. "If Anthony [Zolezzi, a consultant for the Egg Board] can prevent Beyond Eggs on the shelves, it would be worth it."
The documents show a concerted effort to undercut Just Mayo, purely because it was an option that didn't include eggs, and was therefore a competitor to the egg industry. They suggest that the Egg Board heads were willing to use publicly-collected money to limit the number of options consumers had on grocery store shelves.
Shapiro passed the documents to Candice Choi at the Associated Press, who broke the story. The revelation raised a lot of red flags because the campaign may have been illegal. The Egg Board is only supposed to promote eggs, not try to take down competition or influence the actions of government agencies. As a result, Ivy stepped down and the USDA launched an investigation into the Egg Board's actions. We contacted the USDA for comment but did not receive an immediate response.
But it doesn't stop there. Just before the news broke, the FDA sent Hampton Creek a letter, warning that it wasn't allowed to use the word "mayo" on a product with no eggs—a step Egg Board members had hoped for, according to the emails. After the news broke about the Egg Board's campaign, the FDA changed its mind, and said Hampton Creek can use the word mayo, after all, as long as it makes a few changes to the label, including making "egg free" more prominent.
"We don't believe that the public knows the full story."
Then, there was another twist. Last week, news broke that Hampton Creek had its own internal scandal. Bloomberg reported the company had executed a large buy-back scheme, which plumped up its sales figures right around the time it was courting investors—a successful endeavor that raised more than $120 million. Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick maintains the buy back was primarily to check the consistency and quality of Just Mayo, and had no impact on sales, but the story still raised a lot of eyebrows.
And just this week, the Good Food Institute—a nonprofit that advocates for the plant-based food industry—launched a lawsuit against the USDA, claiming it blocked the Institute from gaining access to additional documents from the Egg Board. The Good Food Institute filed FOIA requests in December for meeting minutes and budgetary documents from the Egg Board, but were only given the same documents that were already public, according to Nicole Negowetti, the Institute's policy director and a food law expert.
"The excuse that they gave us was that they can't disclose any information because the investigation is ongoing," Negowetti told me. "That's no legal basis to withhold documents and we don't believe that the public knows the full story."
Government agencies can withhold specific documents from FOIA requests if they will interfere with an investigation, but not just flat out deny any information that's even tangentially related to the case, which is what the Good Food Institute is arguing the USDA has done. Negowetti told me she hopes the lawsuit will spur the USDA to just release the documents, which the Institute would share with the public.
The real climax to this story will be the USDA's investigation and how seriously, or not, it takes the Egg Board's actions. The fact that an investigation is underway is good news, but it won't mean much if the agency brushes the whole scandal off. And how it reacts will send a message to other food boards, reminding them that their role is just to promote their industry, not pick and choose what kind of sandwich spreads get stocked at Whole Foods.
Update: The USDA responded to our request by stating that it is "currently finalizing results of an extensive review of activities by current and former employees of the American Egg Board."