It looks like The Great Mayonnaise War is finally over as the USDA issues rulings on the antics the egg board was engaged in that started the war.
If you don’t remember the Mayonnaise War, I don’t blame you. As such things go, it made barely a blip on the media’s radar. But for some it was a very big deal indeed.
The war began when a company called Hampton Creek released a vegan mayonnaise that they called Just Mayo. Unlike ‘real’ mayonnaise, Just Mayo was made without the use of eggs.
Just Mayo was the kind of product that would probably not have made much of dent in the marketplace, to be honest. It might have gotten exposure in places like Whole Foods and other speciality retailers, but it’s unlikely that it would have been all that popular in most mass market grocery store chains. Vegan foods intended to replace more traditional non-vegan options generally don’t do all that well in the mass market.
The egg producers, and especially the American Egg Board, the egg industry’s marketing organization, didn’t see it that way, though. They looked at Just Mayo and went full Chicken Little, running around in circles like a chicken with it’s head cut off, clucking that the sky was falling, and that they had to do something, right now, to shut this down, before they were left with (Oh, no, he’s not really going to say it, is he? Yeah, he is) egg on their faces.
Now, have I gotten all of the chicken references out of the way in this little item? Lord, I hope so. I hate it when I start doing that. Are there no depths to which I will not stoop in order to grab for a cheap laugh? Uh, well, no, not really. Ahem, let’s get on with this.
The egg board went a bit loony, to be honest. It launched attacks against Just Mayo, claiming it wasn’t ‘real’ mayonnaise because it didn’t have eggs, filing complaints with the FDA, USDA and any other agency that had blank complaint forms laying around in the lobby.
But the board’s efforts to derail Hampton Creek and it’s vegan mayonnaise weren’t limited to just legal objections.
An alleged industry consultant, someone named Zolezzi, got in touch with the board and during a strategy session in 2013 claimed he could make a phone call and get Whole Foods to pull the product line from it’s shelves. An offer that was, for a time at least, taken seriously. In a note written to the president of the board, the head of United Egg Producers offered to get in touch with Zolezzi and actually try to do it.
Internal memos and emails showed one instance where it was suggested egg board members pool their money and hire a hit man to take out the founder of Hampton Creek.
This was, they say, a joke.
And it was also a ‘joke’ when another member offered to have his old buddies in Brooklyn to pay a visit to the founder of Hampton Creek with the apparent intent to, I’m sure, have a nice, pleasant chat with him and not at all do him bodily injury.
Investigators from the USDA said that the actions and comments of the egg board were “inappropriate discussions about an action which, if acted upon, would have significantly exceeded the provisions of the Egg Research and Consumer Information Act” that was responsible for setting up the board and defining its duties.
(Good heavens, really? How can an egg board operate if can’t take out a hit on the competition? What’s the world coming to?)
The board did take some action, including trying to rig internet advertising services so searches for Hampton Creek’s products would bring up the board’s own ads. It discussed spending money for “research and coordination with key influential bloggers in food and health/nutrition space, drafting key messaging and coordinating posts”, according to the reports I’ve read. In other words, trying to hire or otherwise influence food bloggers to present a message that was pro-egg and anti Just Mayo.
I should point out that Hampton Creek allegedly wasn’t behaving in exactly an ethical fashion either. An investigative reporter for Bloomberg news filed a report that claimed Hampton was running a covert operation to buy up large amounts of its own products in order to inflate sales figures and make it more attractive to investors.
According the the Bloomberg report (click the link to jump to the story) executives at the company launched a large scale undercover operation to buy back its own products in order to make it seem the company was selling far more than it really was. Five former workers came forward to talk about it, hundreds of receipts, expense reports, cash advance records and emails were discovered by Bloomberg describing how the scheme worked. In addition, Bloomberg claims that the company had contractors calling store managers asking about Just Mayo, requesting they stock it.
Bloomberg’s report also shows contractors and employees bought large quantities of product from Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Walmart, Target and Whole foods around the country. Employees were assigned specific stores, instructed in techniques for making the buys so they wouldn’t be seen buying mass quantities of the product.
The CEO claims the purpose of the purchases was to check quality of product, not to inflate sales. But internal memos and emails from company executives don’t back that up. Emails from from a Hampton Creek vice president actually outlined how contractors should use self checkout lanes or make several transactions at different lanes to avoid appearing to be buying large amounts of product and to avoid wearing Hampton Creek logoed clothing. One email specifically said “this is an undercover project.” according to Bloomberg.
The company was being investigated by the SEC and the Justice Department, but I haven’t heard of any results from those investigations as yet.
But let’s get back to the marketing board, which is what I started out talking about.
The whole thing was just silly, and it points out just how out of control these product marketing boards have become, and how cutthroat product marketing can be.
The whole kerfuffle ended up with the egg board getting a slap on the wrist from the government, and a promise that the board would ‘retrain’ its employees on just what it could and could not legally do.