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Hampton Creek targeted by USDA-controlled egg industry program

Michele Simon, Cross-posted from Eat Drink Politics

Hundreds of pages of disclosed communications from the American Egg Board reveal a coordinated two-year plan to undermine and attack Hampton Creek, the San Francisco-based food company, seen as a “threat” and “major crisis” to the egg industry.

AmericanEggBoard egg

Potential legal violations uncovered in secret PR effort to damage egg-free competitor

One of the most important ways that industrial animal agriculture promotes its products is through Congressionally-mandated “checkoff” programs. Each industry member pays into a collective fund that is controlled and managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The American Egg Board is the egg industry’s checkoff program. Very specific rules govern how it operates, all supposedly overseen by the USDA. The Egg Board’s stated mission (which stems from federal law) is “to allow egg producers to fund to carry out proactive programs to increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion.”

And yet, USDA’s recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveals a number of highly questionable activities that likely violate federal law. The documents (summarized here) are mostly email exchanges between Egg Board executives and others in the egg industry, or with PR consultants, and reveal a disturbing pattern of attacks on Hampton Creek over a two-year period from 2013-2014. (There’s no indication that the campaign has stopped.)

As I documented last fall, Hampton Creek’s early success has touched a nerve in the industrial food industry. These documents show that the lawsuit by Unilever over the start-up’s Just Mayo product was child’s play compared to the Egg Board’s activities. Below is a summary of the most egregious communications.

Engaging in inappropriate and possibly illegal activities

Checkoff programs like the Egg Board are legally required to stay within the boundaries of advertising, promotion, consumer education, and research. Specifically not allowed are lobbying activities. The statute says that no funds shall “be used for the purpose of influencing government policy or action”.

However, several email exchanges indicate this provision was violated. For example, one Egg Board executive asks Roger Glasshoff, USDA’s National Supervisor of Shell Eggs (now retired) how to make a complaint to the Food and Drug Administration regarding Just Mayo’s labeling. This Egg Board exec asked: “I just saw this label for Just Mayo, a non-egg mayo, and they claim to be “non-GMO.” If FDA doesn’t permit this language, who can we alert regarding this “violation”? And USDA’s Glasshoff replies: “I would forward the information to the FDA District Office responsible for the location where the product was marketed.” He goes on to opine about non-GMO labeling.

It’s highly inappropriate and likely illegal for a USDA staff person to be coaching the Egg Board on how to complain to FDA about Hampton Creek. Moreover, the Egg Board is simply not allowed to even make such a complaint. That explains why, in another email exchange, an Egg Board executive suggests that the United Egg Producers (the private egg industry lobbying group) take up that charge instead.

Read the full story here.