Ve­g­ans cry foul over Hamp­ton Creek re­moval

Some call for boy­cott of Tar­get af­ter it takes firm’s food off shelves.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Ge­of­frey Mohan

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

a con­spir­acy.

“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.

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