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Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek speaks at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 in San Francisco.
Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch
The Plate

What’s the Fuss? It’s Just Mayo

A fundamental truth about revolutions: Some stand to benefit a lot, many in the status quo risk losing it all.

Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s dynamic CEO, says his Silicon Valley company will revolutionize the food system by replacing resource-sucking eggs with the company’s plant-based, inexpensive alternatives. Hampton Creek’s ability to disrupt the egg market became clear to many when its Just Mayo spread started selling at stores from Dollar Tree to Safeway to Whole Foods—an achievement not many products can claim.

Last year, Unilever, maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, dropped a lawsuit attempting to force Just Mayo to change its name, claiming that federal law requires mayonnaise to have eggs. (The definition of mayonnaise was created in the 1950s to protect consumers from shoddy food products.) Then in August, the FDA warned Hampton Creek that Just Mayo doesn’t meet the legal definition for mayonnaise.

From a series of emails released last month, it appears that the American Egg Board—appointed and controlled by the U..S Department of Agriculture—devised a calculated campaign against Hampton Creek that may have contributed to the company’s troubles in the past year. One email stated Hampton Creek should be looked at as “a major threat to the future of the egg product business.”

I caught up with Tetrick for a conversation about recent events.

MBA: You recently returned from China—how did that visit affect your work at Hampton Creek?

JT: When you’re in a country with more than a billion people, you start looking at things a little bit differently. It’s easy to focus on the U.S., to think about improving our food system, from the amount of water we use to improving health and wellness to getting chemicals out of our food system. But when you’re standing in Beijing, in a country that is consuming more than five times the amount of food than the U.S. is consuming, the urgency about doing something about our food system hits you in the face more. The issues of climate, water, food safety, and health—the more people you have in the area, the more they become aggravated, the more the current food system looks not resilient.

Are you looking to get into the Chinese market?

It’s why I was there and it’s why my team was there. Were going to start looking with urgency at a lot of partnerships that are in their infancy and growing them.

And part of that is talking about Hampton Creek’s mission?

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Hampton Creek’s many flavors of eggless mayo. Photograph by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for NYCWFF

Sure. If you were going to start the food system over from scratch, it wouldn’t look like what we have now. So we ask, what would you want it to look like if you could start over? Food would be better for the environment, better for your body, less expensive, and taste better. So there needs to be a new approach to get us to that place.

The “less expensive” part is interesting, because many people in the good-food movement believe that part of the problem is that because of government subsidies, food costs too little and we don’t see the actual cost of food production.

Just like in the U.S., in China, the amount of expendable income people have to buy better-for-you food is very tiny, so if you can’t figure out a way to make the things that are better for your body and the planet less expensive, then you’re not actually solving something. And the thing that is acceptable, the thing that is easy, the thing that works really well, is also the cheapest, is also the thing that is not best for the environment. We do it not because we’re bad people, we do it because for whatever reason we have a system that makes the thing that is not so good the easier thing in the world and that’s what we’re dealing with, with food.

You’re not going to have a shift unless you have a shift when it comes to economics. Often we think about solving the issue as a people problem rather than a system problem. I don’t believe in the goodwill of people to solve this.

If you were going to start the food system over from scratch, it wouldn’t look like what we have now. So we ask, what would you want it to look like if you could start over? Food would be better for the environment, better for your body, less expensive, and taste better. So there needs to be a new approach to get us to that place.

That might sound pessimistic, but the percentage of people who have discretionary income and the awareness to choose better-for-you food is so tiny and you’re only going to solve the problem if you create a system of food where the thing that you want—less water, less land use, safer—works better and is less expensive than the other thing. It’s just like this: You’re never going to solve the energy issue in China unless you figure out a way to get clean energy to be less expensive.

Do you consider yourselves a food technology company?

There are narratives around titles that are trap doors for us, that we have to be really aware of. One is getting caught up in the better-for-you food movement because we don’t ever want to feel exclusive for a particular group of people. It’s part of the reason why we sell our products at Wal-Mart and the Dollar Tree as well as Whole Foods. But we have biochemists and computational biologists here so in that sense we are using different approaches to get where we want to go. But that name technology is a little scary to some people.

Speaking of names, how is it going with the FDA?

We understand their perspective. We will be sitting down with the FDA to talk about the label. We have so many products launching in the next year, Just Mayo will be a twelfth of our revenue so our company doesn’t exist to be a mayo company.

But it is important, because we think that sustainability should be integrated into the standard of identity. We should say, this is what we want: less heart disease, less water use, less carbon emissions in our atmosphere, more safety, and we should build standard and policies around more of that stuff. And the mayo thing gives us a chance to introduce our company to the FDA and share what we’re doing. We hope we get to keep our name. I think we will have a good conversation about all of these issues, not just those related to the standard of identity for mayonnaise.

So it’s not just about Just Mayo?

Some people ask, what’s the deal with the intensity over the name Just Mayo? And we could never sell mayo again and be fine because we have lots of other stuff happening. The reason we got more involved in deeper policy issues in D.C.—like the stuff about the Egg Board—is there is an opportunity to create a system that is promoting more of this food that is better for us, that is accessible, that is better for the environment. Of course that helps us along the way too. But integrating sustainability into the standards of identity isn’t just about helping us, I think it’s helping to create better policy.

Did you see China announced a huge Cap and Trade program [to control greenhouse gas and climate change]? If you look at global agriculture, add up the water, the land, all of it, it’s a significant contributor to climate change. So as countries are beginning to take steps to deal with an issue, it’s not just about emissions from energy, not just Cap and Trade. We should have a system to deal with food, too.

You’ve called for a Congressional Investigation concerning the Egg Board.

We’ve been talking with members of Congress on both sides and there seems to be real concern over it. The Congressional investigation would be for the USDA to be more in the business of creating a better food system. These administrative boards of the USDA are not doing that when they get in the business of trying to take out competitors attempting to do other things.

The purpose of the congressional investigation is that we want USDA to reform how some of the programs work so they can shift to what their mission should be—supporting US agriculture, not just blindly but for the purpose of creating better outcomes. Secretary Vilsack has done a lot of good things and I’m hopeful that he continues with the principled things he’s done before.

 What products are in the pipeline?

On November 15, we will launch pancakes, muffins, waffles, ranch dressing, Thousand Island dressing, Caesar dressing, and brownies with Compass Group. And then the first quarter of next year we’re coming out with a plant that actually scrambles like a chicken egg.