As a food scientist who works directly with MANY start up companies (My book The Food Business Toolkit was designed just for them!) I am happy that the FDA has finally taken a stand and pointed out Hampton Creek label violations including mislabeling the product as “mayo” when it clearly is not as well as multiple other violations related to fat grams and health claims.

For those who have not seen this letter– It can be read HERE:

http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2015/ucm458824.htm

I have been working as a consultant for the past 7 years for large companies like Plum Organics and Kraft foods and with multiple smaller start ups and I have found that the larger the company (or the “Big Food” companies) the more inclined they are to try their hardest to follow the rules and go by the book. Not because they want to—after all FDA regulations are designed to prevent marketing from “misleading” us — but because they don’t want to get caught and have their product pulled from the shelves in a major FDA recall, be the focus of articles and have their reputation destroyed.

It’s always the smaller companies that feel that they can get away with or deserve to get away with regulation violations. Some companies feel that they are so small that no one will notice their health claims or too big serving sizes (the bigger the serving the more protein in your portion right?) But start ups also believe that because they are not a large corporation and are using what they feel are healthier or more sustainable ingredients- they deserve to be able to bend the rules—just a tiny bit—after all they are saving the world, whats a minor label infraction or two.

Bending the rules in my mind means misleading the consumer. Misleading the consumer gives Hampton Creek a competitive edge and allows them to sell more product. In this case their product is essentially oil and modified food starch.  I am sure most people who read the news are well aware that “Just Mayo” does not contain eggs  but still there are lots of people out there that don’t read up on food media and are not aware that it is not really a mayonnaise and they are being deceived. At what point do we draw the line on deception?

Hampton Creek has a picture of an egg on the label—if I didn’t read the news I would think that meant there were eggs in it! Yes there is a pea plant growing within the egg but I am not a botanist so to me it just looks like an egg on the label with a cute flower design.

I guess I am left with confusion. Was the mislabel intentional? Was it done to help sell more products—or was it done out of pure ignorance and human error as expressed in Josh’s August 7 blog about other Hampton Creek issues (calling lemon juice concentrate “lemon juice”, short changed shelf life studies and unlisted preservatives). Hampton Creek has published their 120 million +investment money from Bill Gates and others. With that kind of funding, one could hire a regulatory team to ensure your label is error free.  I bet for under $5,000 they could have had a compliant label with accurate information that did not mislead consumers into thinking Just Mayo has fresh lemon juice and eggs.

That is – if they WANTED to have that accuracy.

Lots of small companies get away with label violations ALL THE TIME! I see the errors at trade shows and with my clients who ask me to review their labels. But Hampton Creek has been big news for awhile, lots of media attention. Attention was drawn to this matter by the Unilever dropped lawsuit and Hampton Creek was actually happy for the publicity which made them look like the underdog getting kicked around by “Big Food” companies—that attention may have gotten them into Walmart and my local Lundardi’s but it also got the attention of the FDA.

But now Hampton Creek (or Josh) is saying that they WON’T change the label. They don’t think its deceptive. They say check out the small print on the back.

Their goal is to fight “Big Food Companies” and make sustainable food and “start over” but all I see are Mayonnaise with less than 2% pea protein and Cookies with less than 2% Sorghum– their two MAGIC ingredients are in the “less than” 2% category which means (as all trained food scientists know) that it really could be as low as 0.02%.

I feel the need to reiterate this: The sorghum and the pea protein have nothing to do with the functional success of this product. They are just in there for marketing.

Do you know what the REAL magic ingredients are– the real magic here is modified food starch and sugar and fat. I am willing to bet that anyone reading this blog, be it mommy bloggers to experienced chefs could make a egg free cookie or a food starch thickened oil and toss in a sprinkle of pea protein and sorghum. As a matter of fact, I think I may make some tomorrow and post the recipes here. Stay tuned for that!

I wonder– is modified food starch sustainable? I have spent the last 9 years fulfilling client requests to take it OUT of their product but we all know its a superior emulsifier so I don’t blame Hampton creek for keeping it in since pea protein is not known for its amazing emulsification properties.

Three years ago I got a inquiry from a Hampton Creek recruiter. She asked me if I knew anyone looking for a food science job. The salary levels she quoted were embarrassingly low – I had to tell her that I could only recommend entry level interns for what they were offering to pay. Perhaps this is why they have ended up with a 9th grade food science fair project similar to the ones I judge every year in Golden Gate Park.

Companies like Hampton Creek and Sandhill Foods and many others are beginning to come across as all talk. Smooth talking sale folk hiding in university professor clothing and hipster hoodies have been able to hypnotize investors into handing over fortunes but neither pitcher nor investor ever do their homework. They just assume that because BIG FOOD has not put it out on the market yet it must be because they were not sustainable enough to think of it. I hate to break the news but Kraft Foods and Unilever actually hire really smart food scientists. I have worked in both places (my first job ever was at Unilever in 1996 and I was at Kraft foods in 2012) and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from the best of the best!

My words of advice to Hampton Creek– hire some real food scientists and pay them a real bay area salary (that would be at least 120K a year for someone with 8 years experience). Some of the smartest food scientists I ever worked with were at Kraft Foods and a whole bunch of them recently lost their jobs in the Kraft-Heinz merger so they may be available to hire if you give them something HARD to work on– like Science!

 

 

 

 

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