Hampton Creek & Chipotle scare agribiz
Not all that long ago bigtime animal agribusiness and the fast food meat industry clamored for laws against so-called “food disparagement,” to try to silence influential critics.
Now bigtime agribusiness and allies of the fast food meat industry are doing the disparaging, using the “check-off” funds created by Congress in 1985 to promote food commodities and hiding behind “hired gun” fronts including longtime tobacco industry lobbyist Richard Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom.
The most prominent targets include Hampton Creek, maker of the eggless Just Mayo mayonnaise-like sandwich spread, and Chipotle Mexican Grill, the 1,700-store chain whose “sofrita” burrito has introduced tofu to fast food menus.
A hit on Just Mayo maker?
Reported Associated Press food industry writer Candace Choi on September 2, 2015, “The American Egg Board waged a campaign to counter the emergence of Just Mayo, and even tried to prevent its sale at Whole Foods grocery stores. Documents provided to Associated Press offer a sometimes comic glimpse into the alarm the egg group felt,” Choi wrote, “including two apparently joking references to killing Hampton Creek cofounder and chief executive Josh Tetrick.”
“You want me to contact some of my old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit?” American Egg Board executive Mitch Kanter asked in a December 2013 e-mail.
“Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?” Mike Sencer of Hidden Villa asked by e-mail on October 31, 2014.
Continued Choi, “Publicly, the American Egg Board has sought to downplay Hampton Creek as just another egg substitute and has avoided referring to it by name. But e-mails showed the board was troubled by the media attention being showered on Hampton Creek, whose big investors include Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
“At one point, the board commissioned a public relations campaign called ‘Beyond Eggs Outreach’ — a reference to Hampton Creek’s previous name,” Beyond Eggs. “The effort spanned three months and included paying bloggers to tout the benefits of real eggs,” Choi wrote.
Elaborated Deena Shanker of the online magazine Quartz, later on September 2, 2015, “In an August 2013 e-mail, Joanne Ivy, president of the American Egg Board, refers to Just Mayo as ‘a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.’ The e-mail concluded with the line: ‘What are we doing at AEB with regard to this competing product?? We need to have an answer!’”
Touched a nerve
The e-mails “were disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a public records expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his lawyer, Jeffrey Light, who specializes in FOIA matters,” Shanker continued. “Several of the e-mails obtained were posted online by Hampton Creek and food lawyer and activist Michele Simon.”
Blogged Simon, “Hampton Creek’s early success has touched a nerve in the industrial food industry.”
The American Egg Board correspondence began in 2013, about a year before Unilever, maker of Hellman’s Mayonnaise and several other leading mayonnaise brands, sued Hampton Creek for allegedly engaging in false advertising to promote Just Mayo.
“The dispute drew even more attention to Hampton Creek’s products, and Unilever dropped the suit,” recounted Stephanie Strom of The New York Times.
Hampton Creek further frightened animal agribusiness in March 2015, Strom reported, when “Foodbuy, which buys some $18 billion of food as the procurement arm of Compass Group, a food services company, began selling Hampton Creek’s Just Cookies, which are made without eggs,” and added Just Mayo “to the products it sells to health care organizations, senior living groups, universities and other institutional food providers.
“Hampton Creek’s products already can be found in several major grocery chains, where Just Mayo appears to have cut into sales of traditional mayonnaise,” Strom wrote.
Further inflaming animal agribusiness anxiety about Hampton Creek may be the identity of the other cofounder, Josh Balk, director of food policy for the Humane Society of the U.S. and a 2015 addition to the Animal Rights Hall of Fame sponsored by the Farm Animal Rights Movement. A former undercover investigator for Compassion Over Killing, who later managed the CoK national television ad campaign, Balk according to his AR-2015 conference speaker’s biography has also “gained venture capital for other plant-based meat, egg, and dairy companies, as well as for in-vitro meat,” and “got the three largest food service companies, Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group, to launch national programs to reduce meat consumption among their clients. He got Wendy’s to add a black bean burger to its menu, and persuaded dozens of restaurants to add more vegan foods to their menus.”
Center for Consumer Freedom attacks Chipotle
Two days after the American Egg Board e-mails about strategies for attacking Hampton Creek were disclosed, the Center for Consumer Freedom published a full-page ad attacked Chipotle Mexican Grill in the New York Post.
Described Wonkblog reporter Roberto A. Ferdman, “The ad, which features a flexing, overweight male, looking directly into the camera, smiling almost snidely, clearly mocks the notion that eating at Chipotle is a healthy life choice. ‘Eat two ‘all natural’ Chipotle burritos a week and you could gain 40 pounds in a year,’ the ad says, oozing with sarcasm.”
The ad linked to a web site, ChubbyChipotle.com, which issued further criticisms of the Chipotle menu selections and promotional materials.
Assessed Ferdman, “Chipotle has earned both praise and skepticism in its ascent to the upper echelon of the fast food world. This year, when it became clear that a pork supplier wasn’t meeting the company’s standards, Chipotle took the fall and stopped serving pork at hundreds of restaurants around the country. The act,” reported reducing the menu at about a third of all U.S. Chipotle franchises, “was met with applause, as consumers celebrated the chain’s steadfastness about its core values. Chipotle’s announcement that it would no longer serve foods containing genetically modified organisms, however, was far less popular. Much of the media, including The Washington Post‘s editorial board, accused the chain of irresponsible fear-mongering.”
Chipotle director of communications Chris Arnold dismissed the Center for Consumer Freedom attack. “What they’re saying, what they’re accusing us of, it’s nothing new,” Arnold told Ferdman. “They’re just rehashing things others have been making up about us for years. It’s actually just pretty infantile.”
The Center for Consumer Freedom campaign against Chipotle is not known to be funded by animal agribusiness check-off funds, but exactly who is funding it is unknown, because CCF is a nonprofit organization, which like other nonprofits is not required to not disclose the identities of donors. CCF has, however, reportedly received funding in the past from Wendy’s restaurants, the Outback steakhouse chain, Cargill, Coca Cola, the Tyson chicken empire, Pilgrim’s Pride, and RTM Inc., owner of Arby’s restaurants.
National Pork Board
The disclosure of alleged misuse of American Egg Board funding to attack Hampton Creek and Just Mayo, however, came about three weeks after a U.S. Federal Court of Appeals panel in Washington D.C. ruled on August 14, 2015 that the Humane Society of the U.S., an organization called Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and several independent pig farmers may proceed with a lawsuit seeking to overturn the use of check-off funds to underwrite the National Pork Producers Council.
Explained HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, “Under federal law, farmers of certain commodities, including pork, beef, and eggs, are required to pay a percentage of their sales into a check-off fund. These funds are intended to be used to promote the sale of farm products.”
“The Other White Meat”
For pig farmers, Pacelle continued, “The National Pork Board is the group created to be the custodian of the money. Years ago, the Pork Board launched the now widely known slogan ‘Pork: The Other White Meat.’ Similar programs for the cattle and egg industries we’ve all heard of are ‘Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner’ and ‘The Incredible, Edible Egg.’
“Somehow,” Pacelle narrated, “the National Pork Board handed over this ‘Pork: The Other White Meat’ slogan to the National Pork Producers Council. Then, after the publicity campaign ran its course and they swapped in a new marketing slogan and campaign, the NPPC sold the slogan back to the Pork Board for a staggering $60 million! In short, over the next 20 years, the Pork Board would give the NPPC $3 million a year––which is as much as a third of all money that the NPPC gets to fund its daily operations.
“Threatens to pull plug”
“Today’s court ruling threatens to pull the plug on this deal,” Pacelle exulted, “and it’s a potentially enormous win for animal welfare groups, small farmers, and environmentalists,” since the check-off money “was never intended to run day-to-day operations and lobbying campaigns of an extremist industry trade association that defends keeping pigs in lifelong inhumane confinement in small cages, making a mess of rural communities by filling open-air lagoons with extraordinary volumes of liquefied manure, resisting efforts to phase out its overuse of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, and blocking action to limit its significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants.”
Elaborated Danny Vinik of Politico.com, “Pork hasn’t been “the other white meat” for years—after a 24-year run as the centerpiece of billboards and the butt of jokes, the slogan was retired in 2011. But the National Pork Board, a government-sponsored entity funded by a tax on hog farmers, still writes a check for $3 million every year to license the unused slogan—a bewildering payout that only makes sense, critics say, when you realize the money goes straight to an industrial pork lobby that has long been closely tied to the board.
“Many critics also see the deal as symptomatic of a far broader problem with the ‘check-off’ programs that have become common across the agricultural world, in which the government requires farmers to make regular payments to promotional boards,” Vinik wrote. “Check-offs exist for dairy farmers, mushroom producers, and even popcorn processors. Critics say they violate economic freedom and distort the market; big corporate farmers, they allege, easily find ways to influence the boards and siphon the money off to push their own causes.”
Whether the use of check-off funds for the egg, pork, and perhaps other animal commodities has turned the legal corner from promoting those products to disparaging others is likely to be tested soon in court.
Of note, though, is that the animal industry counterattack against vegans, vegetarians, and animal advocates has shifted from trying to silence individual critics to attacking vegan and vegetarian food choices which have already won broad favor from the public.
Mad Cowboy & No More Bull
This is a dramatic turnabout since 1996, when television talk show host Oprah Winfrey invited ex-cattle rancher turned vegan advocate Howard Lyman to discuss Mad Cow disease live on the air. After Lyman knew first-hand how Mad Cow disease appears to be spread by the practice of feeding pulverized cattle remains to other cattle as part of their feed, Winfrey said “Ooh, I’m never going to eat another burger!”
Claiming Lyman and Winfrey were responsible for $10 million to $12 million in losses to the beef industry, rancher Paul Engler and his company, Cactus Feeders, sued Lyman and Winfrey under a 1995 Texas “food disparagement” law similar to other laws in effect in 13 states.
The case against Lyman and Winfrey remained before both Texas and federal courts until August 27, 2002, when it was “dismissed with prejudice,” meaning that it could not be raised again.
“Food disparagement” laws
Agribusiness pushed for the passage of “food disparagement” laws after McDonald’s Restaurants took an international publicity beating for trying to use British libel laws to silence activists Dave Morris and Helen Steel, in a case which from the outset would have been seen by U.S. courts as infringing their constitutional right to free speech. Agribusiness hoped that laws more specifically addressing activist criticisms would find more judicial favor, a possibility which so far has barely been tested.
Because many of the “food disparagement” laws establish a lower standard for civil liability, allow punitive damages and attorney’s fees to be awarded only to the plaintiffs, regardless of the outcome of a case, and place the burden of proof on the defendant rather than on the plaintiff, they are widely regarded as constitutionally shaky in themselves.
The Morris & Steel case
As members of a defunct organization called London Greenpeace, Morris and Steel in 1986 distributed flyers, which they did not author, alleging that McDonald’s Restaurants sell unhealthy food, produced by means which cause animal suffering and contribute to starvation and deforestation in economically disadvantaged parts of the world.
Sued by McDonald’s in 1990, other defendants dropped out when denied legal aid, but Morris, who was then only marginally employed, and Steel, who was between jobs, realized they had little to lose, and elected to defend themselves.
The trial lasted for 313 days, over parts of four years. The court found in 1997 that the pamphlet allegations about animal abuse were sustained, along with allegations about exploiting children and paying low wages, but not some other claims, and ordered Morris and Steel to pay McDonald’s £60,000 in damages. The amount was cut to £40,000 on appeal in 1999.
Morris and Steel then appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasburg, France.
On February 14, 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Morris and Steel were improperly denied government legal aid for their defense, and had been convicted of libel under an unjust law.
The seven-judge European Court panel dismissed the 1997 “guilty” verdict, held that the verdict violated Articles 6 and 10 of the European Human Rights Convention, and awarded Morris and Steel damages of $25,934 and $19,451, respectively.
McDonald’s reportedly spent £10 million to prosecute Morris and Steel, who raised £40,000 for their defense.