News & Politics

A Vegan Mayo Company Was Attacked in a Malicious Hoax—Then Target Kicked Its Products Off the Shelves

This story gets really weird.

Photo Credit: Mike Mozart

Hampton Creek, a relative newcomer to the grocery aisle, debuted in 2011 as a sort of tech-minded answer to problems in the global food system that the company believed it could help solve through plant-based products. The brand’s signature product is Just Mayo, a popular mayonnaise product made without eggs.

Hampton Creek met with corporate pushback from entities that saw the company’s products as a threat. As Hampton Creek grew its product line to include everything from dressings to cookie dough, forging relationships with major distributors along the way, the organization faced scrutiny that smaller plant-oriented food companies have not.

Uniliever, which owns Hellman’s, initially sued Hampton Creek for false advertising due to Just Mayo’s lack of eggs. The suit was eventually dropped, and Just Mayo remained on the shelves. Hellman’s got in on the action by launching its own vegan mayo to compete.

Hampton Creek's insular workings have also drawn controversy, especially as numerous former employees describe slippery ethical moves and its entire board of directors recently left, with many reportedly citing “discord” with CEO Josh Tetrick as the reason.

Amid the internal politics and outside legal pressures, Hampton Creek products continued to fly off the shelves, and the products’ safety has never been in question. Hampton Creek products are routinely top-ranked by consumers for quality. (Full disclosure: There’s at least one Hampton Creek mayo product in my refrigerator right now.)

Then came the hoax. At least two major grocery retailers received correspondence suggesting that Hampton Creek products were mislabeled and contaminated. They weren’t. Even the FDA became involved and completely cleared Hampton Creek.

Target was the only retailer to react to the well-coordinated hoax by removing the products from its shelves based on the dubious allegations without verifying the authenticity of the claims.

Though Hampton Creek was fully vindicated, Target refused to restock its products, instead tellling Hampton Creek that it was in violation of its Vendor Communication Guidelines. (AlterNet confirmed this from multiple sources, and Target did not dispute it.)

The charge is bizarre because Hampton Creek’s public referencing of Target was completely unavoidable when defending itself from a hoax that only Target inadvertently perpetuated.

The idea that Target would first punish a company based on a hoax then re-punish the same company for defending itself from the hoax doesn’t add up. After confirming the existence of corporate communication citing the alleged contract violation, AlterNet contacted Target’s public relations team to sort the matter out, especially since we were told there was at least one other cited reason for the termination that was procedural and minor.

 A representative responded, “As a matter of policy, Target doesn't comment on discussions with our vendors, so I don’t have any additional details to share.” AlterNet also received the same unenlightening press statement given to other outlets.

We still don’t know who was behind the hoax. But what we do know is that this hoax started a domino effect that led to a smaller health-food-oriented company being tossed from the shelves of a major retailer in favor of larger industry players.

The real losers amid such corporate intrigue are consumers, who already find themselves short on healthy options and denied meaningful choices in the grocery aisle.

With the removal of Hampton Creek, consumers who use Target as a primary grocer have one fewer plant-based option amid an already mimimal set of offerings.

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Chris Sosa is the former Senior Editor of AlterNet. His work also appears in Mic, Salon, Care2, Huffington Post and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisSosa.