What It's Like To Lead A Food Startup Under Fire By The FDA
Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick recently put a full-page ad in The New York Times urging President Obama to “reimagine” the country’s “outdated” food system, in order to put an end to inner city food deserts and dying family farms.
His company’s signature product, the eggless mayonnaise substitute Just Mayo, has put him in conflict with the egg industry and the Food and Drug Administration, and has placed him under greater media scrutiny.
An FDA letter alleges that the product name “Just Mayo” and the image of an egg on the label are misleading customers into thinking it’s mayonnaise and contains eggs, which is one of the primary ingredients of mayonnaise.
Tetrick speaks with Here & Now’s Robin Young for this week’s installment of our View From The Top series.
Your company started with the goal of making eggless products. Why?
“We started to try and have an impact in food. It’s not about chicken eggs, it’s trying to use food as a platform to have an impact. We started with eggs because if one looks at the food system with clear eyes and says, ‘alright, what’s going on,’ we would say that it uses too much energy, it uses too much water, it uses too much land, and one of the things is the use of chicken eggs. They use a lot of land, they use a lot of water, there are a lot of food safety issues, and you’ve got to start somewhere… But the whole point of the company isn’t to get rid of chicken eggs, it’s just to make food better.”
Why not just change the name?
“Well they sure do want me to change the name, but as it pertains to the specific issue at hand with the FDA, mayonnaise, emphasis on the ‘aise’ is defined as having at least 65 percent oil, and containing an egg-yolk ingredient. That’s a standard of identity for mayonnaise. We call our product mayo for a reason, we indicate that it’s egg free and much more importantly than all that, what matters more than anything to us, is having an impact. And I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, calling something ‘just mayo vegan spread alternative’, doesn’t have any impact at all. I mean, we sell this product at the Dollar Tree, we sell this product at Walmart. Just from this singular product, we’ve saved over 1.5 billion gallons of water, over 1 billion milligrams of sodium.”
What it means to be a new company at war with a big industry?
“We started with this big idea of what would it look like if we could rip away our preconceptions and our habits and how we think about things, and start a food system that actually works for everyone. Good food for the body, for the planet, would taste better and be less expensive. Our partnerships span from the largest food service company in the world, to Walmart the largest retailer in the world, to Costco, to Whole Foods, to Target – we’re not just selling out of the side of our headquarters here. So it wasn’t entirely unexpected but I think for us – remember, we’re not a mayo company, we’re a company that’s trying to build a food system that has a lot more impact that is not degrading the planet. And it becomes a slippery slope when you enable people to frame you as an alternative, and we’re not going to stand for that.”
Why not just push, as you do in the ad to the president, for more fresh food in these food deserts, like Birmingham, Alabama?
“I think the answer is not one option. So our option, the way we do things, is to say, there are 400,000 plants around the world, most of them haven’t been explored, how can we – not engineer things, because the plants we use out in the world are non-GMO – but how do we use plants that are in the food system for a long time that our great-grandmothers more likely used than ours, grains like sorghum or the yellow split pea? How do we use these to make everyday food products a little bit better? We’re not engineering them, in fact we’re doing the opposite of that. But other options to fix the food system don’t have to do with what we’re doing, they have to do with simple wisdoms. So we did write a letter to President Obama, you got that right. But we also wrote a letter to great-grandmas, and in our letter to great-grandmas in The New York Times, we ask them a question: give us one way you think we can start over in food. They didn’t say using the yellow pea or sorghum, what they said was teach people how to cook better, with fresh food. And they couldn’t be more right about it, and that is one of the many paths we need to pursue.”