Vegans cry foul over Hampton Creek removal
Some call for boycott of Target after it takes firm’s food off shelves.
Retail giant Target won’t say when — or if — it will restock its shelves with Just Mayo and other vegan-oriented products from Hampton Creek, after withdrawing them last week in response to allegations of contamination and mislabeling.
The unusual move has left mystery and acrimony in its wake, with some of Hampton Creek’s ardent followers calling for a boycott of the retail chain, and others wondering whether something is amiss with a food start-up that has been a darling of Silicon Valley.
“We’re awaiting more information from the FDA before we determine next steps,” a Target spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it is monitoring the situation but has not received any reports of people falling ill from Hampton Creek products. Target and other retailers that carry Hampton Creek products likewise reported no illnesses or complaints.
A withdrawal is not the same as a recall and falls in a nebulous area of federal food safety regulation — it involves either a “minor violation that would not be subject to legal action” by the FDA, or no violation at all, according to the agency’s guidelines.
The vast majority of voluntary removals are initiated by a manufacturer, not a retailer. Some can be a prelude to a full recall, such as when Yogurt maker Chobani in 2013 withdrew its stock from Oregon stores with little explanation, then issued a broader recall in response to reported illnesses.
Almost immediately after Bloomberg broke the Hampton Creek recall story, social media lit up — not so much with “eeews” over the prospect of tainted food but with ominous suggestions of
“Why is it that as soon as these products become mainstream, the bigger players find a way to remove them? So sad,” tweeted @EstherThePig, an avatar for Canadian animal-rights authors Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter.
There’s just enough juicy history for loyalists to suspect some kind of dark corporate conspiracy to ruin Hampton Creek.
The company, after all, was the target of a campaign by food giant Unilever — owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise — to ban the word “Mayo” from Hampton Creek’s hallmark spread because the product contained no eggs. Unilever eventually abandoned its battle, and Hampton Creek reached an agreement with the FDA to make minor changes to its labels.
Then documents surfaced showing the American Egg Board had engaged in a two-year campaign to fight Hampton Creek, in apparent violation of federal rules.
A consultant bragged to the board that he could rid the product from Whole Foods’ shelves “with one phone call,” while members and affiliates jested about “pooling our money to put a hit” on the company’s founder, the documents showed.
The scandal sparked changes in how these industry-funded marketing groups are monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the David vs. Goliath narrative on Hampton Creek has achieved a lot of traction, retail food observers recalled previous controversies — including allegations, also first published by Bloomberg, that the company had hired people to buy back products from retailers’ shelves. Hampton Creek said the policy was related to quality control, but others suspected that it was aimed at boosting sales figures to attract investments.
And last year, Hampton Creek did have a salmonella scare — it voluntarily recalled several lots of cake mixes after one sample of an ingredient tested positive for salmonella.
Target, one of the early carriers of Hampton Creek products, was apparently the only retailer that directly received the allegations of contamination.
The allegations involved pathogens such as salmonella and listeria that allegedly were found in Hampton Creek products and at one of the facilities where the company contracts out the manufacturing of its spreads, salad dressing, cookie dough, pancake mix and other products.
There also were allegations that the company failed to list honey as an ingredient in its mustard and that its claim of not using genetically modified ingredients was untrue.
The identity of the accusers and full details of their allegations have not been revealed by Target or Hampton Creek.
“The allegations that our products are mislabeled and unsafe are false,” a Hampton Creek spokesman said Monday. “The Sweet Mustard product complies with all FDA labeling requirements. Our Non-GMO product claims are supported by ingredient supplier documentation. We are confident that our Non-GMO products are properly labeled. We have robust food safety standards, and as such, we remain confident about the safety of all products we sell and distribute. We look forward to working with Target and the FDA to bring this to a quick resolution.”
The company also issued a letter from a food consultant who defended the company’s sanitary practices:
“I find that the allegations made regarding Hampton Creek to your retail partners very disturbing,” Clifford Coles, president of Clifford M. Coles Food Safety Consulting Inc., wrote to Hampton Chief Executive Josh Tetrick.
“I personally know that under no circumstances has Hampton Creek knowingly allowed product into commercial distribution that may have contained microorganisms of public health significance and nor will it ever be allowed,” Coles wrote.
Hampton Creek products are still available at 20,000 stores nationally, including Whole Foods, Safeway and Dollar Tree, and in hundreds of cafeterias through contracts with food service companies, according to the company.