A government-controlled industry group targeted popular food bloggers, major publications and a celebrity chef as part of its sweeping effort to combat a perceived threat from an egg-replacement startup backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, the Guardian can reveal.
The lobbyists’ media counterattack, in possible violation of US department of agriculture rules, was coordinated by a marketing arm of the egg industry called the American Egg Board (AEB). It arose after AEB chief executive Joanne Ivy identified the fledgling technology startup Hampton Creek as a “crisis and major threat to the future” of the $5.5bn-a-year egg market.
A detailed review of emails, sent from inside the AEB and obtained by the Guardian, shows that the lobbyist’s anti-Hampton Creek campaign sought to:
- Pay food bloggers as much as $2,500 a post to write online recipes and stories about the virtue of eggs that repeated the egg lobby group’s “key messages”
- Confront Andrew Zimmern, who had featured Hampton Creek on his popular Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods and praised the company in a blog post characterized by top egg board executives as a “love letter”
- Target publications including Forbes and Buzzfeed that had written broadly positive articles about a Silicon Valley darling
- Unsuccessfully tried to recruit both the animal rights and autism activist Temple Grandin and the bestselling author and blogger Ree Drummond to publicly support the egg industry
- Buy Google advertisements to show AEB-sponsored content when people searched for Hampton Creek or its founder Josh Tetrick
The scale of the campaign – dubbed “Beyond Eggs” after Hampton Creek’s original company name – shows the lengths to which a federally-appointed, industry-funded marketing group will go to squash a relatively small Silicon Valley startup, from enlisting a high-powered public relations firm to buying off unwitting bloggers.
One leading public health attorney, asked to review the internal communications, said the egg marketing group was in breach of a US department of agriculture (USDA) regulation that specifically prohibited “any advertising (including press releases) deemed disparaging to another commodity”.