By now, you’ve heard or read about the exposé Bloomberg did on Hampton Creek, the company marketing a vegan “mayo” product.
In 2014, the company was sued by the brand-name marketer Hellman’s because the company’s product name was causing confusion among consumers. That prompted the FDA in 2015 to order Hampton Creek to change the name of its signature product “Just Mayo,” because federal standard of identity regulations require that mayonnaise be manufactured with real eggs, not the pea protein extract that Hampton Creek was using.
Hellman’s later dropped its suit, and the FDA reversed itself and decided that “mayo” was different enough from mayonnaise so that consumer confusion was a non-issue.
Now, however the Bill Gates-backed start-up finds itself in deeper waters, as the company and its CEO Joshua Tetrick are being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for an alleged “buyback scheme” aimed at convincing investors that the company seemed more successful than it actually was.
Bloomberg’s investigation contained a number of first-person reports from former employees that Tetrick and management encouraged employees to buy large quantities of Just Mayo at Safeway and Whole Foods stores and elsewhere to make it seem like the product was selling better than it actually was. Emails revealed that employees were instructed to make separate trips and check out with different cashiers to avoid questions about why they were buying large quantities of the product.
Such buyback practices are illegal if they’re used to fraudulently convince investors of a company’s sales data, which is why SEC is now investigating the alleged scheme.
The story prompted a reader on PorkNetwork.com to ask a compelling question: In the light of the Hampton Creek story — and other “alternative” food companies’ marketing practices — how can farmers and producers leverage their message? How do the folks who produce the food products derived from animal agriculture “take on” the Hampton Creeks of the world?
That’s a great question, but it comes with a caveat. Attacking Hampton Creek and its HSUS-affiliated CEO might feel good for the moment. Who doesn’t take a measure of satisfaction in seeing an organization that constantly bashes the livestock industry come under scrutiny for (allegedly) illegal marketing tactics?
But this is a one-off situation, and piling on one company as representative of an entire business sector is no different from activists who try to leverage an animal handling incident at one production facility as representative of all producers.
In either case, it’s not fair, and it really doesn’t create the kind of leverage its proponents believe it does.
More to the point, real leverage, the kind of awareness and understanding that does support social change, has to take place in three different arenas. What can farmers and producers do to advance that process? Here’s how.
First, connect with policymakers. At both the state and federal levels, agriculture represents a significant sector of the economy, even if food and farm issues aren’t usually top of mind with legislators. Whenever possible, those who actually produce our food supply need to speak up, to write postcards, to send emails, to support the campaigns of candidates who support agriculture. There are numerous town halls, public meetings, campaign rallies and other venues at which politicians at least make an attempt at listening to the voters, and producers need to make the key point as relentlessly as possible: Food security — the ability of our nation to feed itself — is as important as energy security, indeed, national security.
And without farmers, ranchers and producers, we have no such security
Second, with consumers, everything from letters to the editor to social media posts to tweets and re-tweets collectively have an effect in shaping public opinion. The purpose is not to pile on bad actors within the vegetarian movement — the mainstream media may be lacking in many areas, but they do a pretty good job of jumping onto scandals — but rather to promote the contributions animal agriculture makes to the economy, to rural communities and to the affordability and choices we all enjoy in the marketplace.
Finally, consider the impact we all can have one-on-one. It’s always underrated in terms of social change, but the personal conversations we have with friends, family members, colleagues and co-workers and even strangers on an airplane or at a ball game can be the most meaningful activism of all.
There is a multitude of organizations, nonprofits and corporate entities that have some form of the following phrase in their mission statement: Creating change one person at a time. Because in the end, that is truly how it works.
Someone can be persuaded by advertising or reporting or marketing messages, but personal conviction at some point needs to be supported by personal testimony.
What can producers do to create impact?
Just talk about what you do, and why you do it, to everyone who will listen.
It sounds simple, but it’s truly profound.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator