An FDA warning letter. Targeted for takedown by the American Egg Board. Negative comments from former employees made public. A lawsuit filed (though later dropped) by one of the world’s largest food companies — Hampton Creek has seen its share of challenges in its first three years as a startup.
But what keeps the California company going? Most important for Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, "The whole point is that we have an impact."
Being an 'impact' company
The impact Tetrick refers to has included impact within the food industry as well as beyond what a food startup might be expected to achieve. Hampton Creek’s focus has been on plant-based ingredients, particularly egg alternatives, which enable the company to produce dairy-free, egg-free products like Just Mayo, Just Cookies, Just Cookie Dough, and most recently announced, the rollout of pancake batter and salad dressings. The company has also moved the launch date for Just Scramble, its liquid-egg product, up to November.
Hampton Creek and its plant-based products have caught on, and business is growing in a big way.
"It’s been explosive," said Tetrick. "We’ve gone from not having a product, not having hardly anything, to being on the shelves of some of the largest retailers in the world, and we have partnerships with some of the largest foodservice companies in the world."
One customer in particular, General Mills, has taken advantage of the egg alternative as a devastating egg shortage threatens the egg industry following a massive outbreak of the bird flu in the U.S. Hampton Creek’s egg alternatives could have an impact on the food industry in this way, though that may not be exactly what Tetrick had in mind.
In his view of making an impact, Tetrick pointed to savings of over 2 billion gallons of water and over 1 billion milligrams of sodium and cholesterol — "taking out the bad stuff and making things a little bit better."
However, that drive to make a positive impact hasn’t always been viewed all that positively. Last month, several former Hampton Creek employees told Business Insider that "the company used shoddy science, or ignored science completely, stretched the truth when labeling samples, and created an uncomfortable and unsafe work environment, partly in an effort to meet production deadlines."
Tetrick delivered a lengthy response explaining his side and denying some of the allegations.
SEE ALSO: Here's why you can't buy Hampton Creek
FDA cracks down on name claims
After three years of Hampton Creek being in business, the FDA is taking issue with the company’s flagship Just Mayo products and has sent the company a warning letter.
According to the FDA’s Aug. 12 warning letter:
"'Just' together with 'Mayo' reinforces the impression that the products are real mayonnaise by suggesting that they are 'all mayonnaise' or 'nothing but' mayonnaise. However, your Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha do not meet the definition of the standard for mayonnaise. According to the labels for these products, neither product contains eggs. Additionally, the products contain additional ingredients that are not permitted by the standard of identity for mayonnaise, such as modified food starch."
The agency said that using the term "mayo" and the image of an egg on Just Mayo’s packaging could be misleading to consumers who might believe the product is standardized mayonnaise, which it is not.
However, Tetrick doesn’t see things the same way and has told media outlets like Inc. that he doesn’t plan on changing the name because "it says egg free right there on the label, and anyone can look at the ingredients on the back and see what the ingredients are."
"We feel great about keeping our name, and I’m really optimistic that the FDA’s going to see it that way too," he told Food Dive.
FDA spokeswoman Jennifer Dooren told Inc. in an email that "the agency cannot comment on how it might respond to Tetrick’s stated plans."
"We can’t speculate on any potential or future action," she said in the email.
Unilever filed and later dropped a lawsuit against Hampton Creek in 2014 citing similar allegations.
SEE ALSO: Here's why you can't buy Hampton Creek
Egg Board emails
Earlier this month, Hampton Creek got an inbox full of information when reports from The Guardian and Associated Press revealed details from hundreds of pages of emails sent internally by members of the USDA-appointed American Egg Board (AEB). The emails revealed a campaign against Hampton Creek, called "Beyond Eggs," in which AEB CEO Joanne Ivy referred to the company as a "crisis and major threat to the future" of the egg industry.
According to The Guardian’s analysis of the emails, the AEB advised Unilever on how to proceed with its lawsuit against Hampton Creek, contacted the FDA with concerns about the company, which prompted the FDA’s Just Mayo warning letter, and attempted to have Just Mayo removed from Whole Foods’ shelves.
According to The Guardian, the emails didn’t stop there: AEB had offered food bloggers as much as $2,500 for online recipes featuring eggs and the AEB’s key messages, confronted food TV personality Andrew Zimmern of "Bizarre Foods" and targeted publications like Forbes and BuzzFeed due to their support for Hampton Creek, and even buying ads on Google that would pull up AEB-sponsored content alongside searches for Hampton Creek or its CEO. Some AEB members even joked about threats of violence against Tetrick.
"Ivy, the egg board's president, wrote in a statement that the board never did, in the end, contact the FDA, and that 'we remain extremely confident that AEB has not broken any laws.' Its efforts, she wrote, were simply intended to 'educate consumers about the benefits of eggs, especially as they are faced with new egg replacement options,' NPR reported.
Now Tetrick is calling for an investigation of the USDA by Congress and the USDA Agriculture Inspector General.
"This is a USDA-controlled board that is completely out of control. It's the responsibility of the USDA to rein it in," Tetrick told Inc.
Egging on the government
Eggless mayo — on Capitol Hill? Hampton Creek hasn’t felt relegated to stores and assembly lines and has instead taken its drive for impact straight to the government, including both Congress and a handful current presidential candidates. Last month, Tetrick took out a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times that accentuated the need to make the food system a focal point of the campaign, and another letter was targeted at President Obama.
Outside of industry groups, it’s not as common to see food companies, particularly startups, directly confronting the government about the need for change in the food industry.
"When you think your purpose is impact, you end up doing things that are somewhat unexpected," Tetrick said.
Hampton Creek has had its successes and struggles, but the company’s mission remains the same.
"Being a food company doesn’t get me nearly as excited as focusing on being an impact company," said Tetrick. "That’s more exciting — although, it’s through food."