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What You Need to Know About Hampton Creek, the Controversial Purveyor of Eggless Mayo

The company hasn’t been short of headlines

A jar of Hampton Creek's Just Mayo.
Hampton Creek’s signature product.
Official

Hampton Creek: Is it a forward-thinking food company trying to make the world a better place? Or is it a shady Silicon Valley startup trying cheat its way into big bucks? The answer will vary depending on whom you ask. Hampton Creek, and its signature product, a vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo, have been in the news quite a bit in recent years. What, exactly, is going on?

What is Hampton Creek?

Headquartered in San Francisco, Josh Balk and chief executive officer Joshua Tetrick founded the company in 2011. Balk eventually left to take a job with The Humane Society, and Tetrick continues to run the show. Hampton Creek’s product line includes a variety of vegan cookie doughs and salad dressings, but Just Mayo, mayonnaise that does not contain eggs, is the big-ticket item. Hampton Creek hopes to be a catalyst in decreasing meat consumption and promoting plant-based proteins.

Why does one vegan startup command so many headlines?

Just Mayo has proven to be a popular product, and it has received some serious love from chef-turned-television star Andrew Zimmern. Zimmern featured it during an episode of Bizarre Foods, and he went on to praise it as a something that could change the food industry as we know it. "Mark my words, [Hampton Creek] founder Josh Tetrick will win a Nobel Prize one day," Zimmern wrote on his website in 2013. "You heard it here first." Of course, the company has also been at the center of multiple controversies.

What sort of controversy could be connected to a vegan startup?

Because Just Mayo doesn’t contain eggs, and because prominent individuals linked to America’s culinary scene have called it "the future of food," the egg industry isn’t a huge fan of the product. Last October, American Egg Board chief executive officer Joanne Ivy took to an early retirement after it was discovered the pseudo-governmental lobbying agency — it’s funded by the egg industry but run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — had been running a shadow campaign to take Just Mayo off of supermarket shelves.

In August 2015, the Food and Drug Administration sent Hampton Creek a warning letter regarding the "Just Mayo" name. The FDA indicated the name could be considered misleading since it was marketing an eggless product as mayonnaise. A Freedom of Information request by Tetrick revealed members of the American Egg Board leaned on the FDA for the warning letter, paid bloggers to write negative reviews of Just Mayo, and considered attempts to discredit its endorsees, such as Zimmern. The FDA eventually decided Hampton Creek could continue calling its product Just Mayo.

So, is Hampton Creek squeaky clean?

Maybe not. Last month, reports surfaced revealing a Hampton Creek campaign to buy up a significant amount of Just Mayo from supermarkets — this was going on during a 2014 round of funding. Employees were reportedly instructed to call stores such as Whole Foods, act as if they were regular customers, and place large orders for Just Mayo, seemingly in an attempt to get the product on shelves.

Was this an attempt to paint a rosier picture of the company for investors? Tetrick has denied any wrongdoing, telling Bloomberg the buyback was part of a quality control program. However, anonymous former employees told the publication the company was trying to create some buzz around Just Mayo and make Hampton Creek more attractive to venture capitalists.

Is there an investigation into this buyback program?

Yes. Bloomberg reports the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department are both looking into the company to determine if any sort of fraud was committed. The latter could bring criminal charges if any illegal activity is found. But, Tetrick doesn’t appear to be rattled. "We’re aware of the informal inquiry and we’ll be sharing the facts, as opposed to the inaccuracies reported by Bloomberg," he wrote in an email to the publication.

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