When I asked recently Why the FDA cares about Just Mayo's name, I wondered aloud if the FDA was picking on Hampton Creek specifically because the eggless product maker has been cutting in on the profits of big food manufacturers. That hunch may have been right.

Evidence has come to light of what some are a calling a conspiracy between Unilever, the American Egg Board, and an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to squash (or scramble or some other egg-related pun) Hampton Creek's line of eggless products.

If you're not familiar with this story, here's what's happened so far:

  • Last fall, Unilever, the makers of Hellman's mayonnaise, sued Hampton Creek for "using the image of an egg on its packaging when the product is eggless, and failing to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of mayonnaise." Sales of Just Mayo increased dramatically. Unilever received a lot of bad press and quickly dropped the lawsuit.
  • Last month, Hampton Creek received a letter from the FDA telling the company to stop marketing Just Mayo as mayonnaise and to change the product's name. Hampton Creek's CEO Josh Tretrick responded to the FDA with reasons why the company thought it should not have to change the product name and released a statement saying, "We're solid on keeping our name."
  • A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) expert from MIT and an attorney who specializes in that topic obtained 600 pages of emails that contain evidence that the egg industry saw Hampton Creek as a threat and took steps to squash the company.
  • When Unilever was suing Hampton Creek, company officials spoke with Joanne Ivy of the American Egg Board (AEB), an egg lobby backed by the the USDA. In an email to Howard Magwire, head of government relations at the United Egg Producers, Ivy wrote that Unilever asked the AEB to publicly support its lawsuit against Hampton Creek. She wrote that the AEB couldn't take a position but she pointed Unilever to the FDA, saying the federal agency probably was aware of the eggless issue but "needs to be pushed."
  • It looks like the USDA's national supervisor of shell eggs (who is now retired) suggested Ivy contact the FDA directly about Just Mayo. As we now know, the FDA told Just Mayo to change its name.
  • Other information obtained in the emails includes joking threats to Tetrick's life, including "putting a hit on him," and Ivy asking someone to call Whole Foods to convince the company not to carry Just Mayo.

The American Egg Board is one of several programs backed by the USDA. That relationship puts more scrutiny on the AEB's actions, specifically actions against a competitor when the board's mission is simply to promote eggs. Hampton Creek is considering asking for a "congressional investigation by the egg board and calling for greater oversight by the USDA," according to the Associated Press.

Whether any legal wrongdoing is found, the fact that all of these egg industry people were involved reveals one thing: Hampton Creek has created something that the industry is worried about. In addition to Just Mayo and eggless cookie dough, Hampton Creek is working on products that would replace eggs in other foods, including baked goods. The company's egg alternatives are lighter on the planet and lighter on the pocketbook than egg production, so it's understandable that the egg industry sees Hampton Creek as competition. However, how the group deals with that competition may require a closer look.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.