A friend recently brought to my attention a conspiracy, a real conspiracy, to destroy a company producing egg-free mayonnaise. The article originally sent to me pitches this as an “anti-vegan” conspiracy, but the reality is much less exciting; at best, it’s a pro-egg conspiracy. The questions on my mind have little to do with the mayonnaise itself. I want to know why and how there would be, of all things, a pro-egg conspiracy.
The answer is deceptively simple. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) apportions $1.3 billion per year to a division called the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which among other duties currently administers 22 “Research & Promotion” programs, “requested, funded, and driven by industry.” The AMS states that it “provides oversight, ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders.” That sounds just lovely.
One of the 22 programs the AMS administers is called the American Egg Board. They came up with, among other things, the “Incredible Edible Egg” slogan and the annoyingly amusing Kevin Bacon & Eggs t-shirt. As you might guess, they put a lot of effort into the “promotion” half of “Research & Promotion.” The Board states that it is funded through roughly $20 million in annual assessments of egg sales (ten centers per 30-dozen case of eggs sold).
Appointees to the Board are selected by the Secretary of Agriculture, from a list of egg producer nominees. The Board itself sprung fully formed from Congress’s thigh in 1974, as part of the “Egg Research and Consumer Information Act.” Among other things, the law states that “[i]t has long been recognized that it is in the public interest to provide an adequate, steady supply of fresh eggs readily available to the consumers of the Nation… It is therefore declared to be the policy of the Congress and the purpose of this Act that it is essential and in the public interest, through the exercise of the powers provided herein, to authorize and enable the establishment of an orderly procedure from the development and the financing through an adequate assessment, an effective and continuous coordinated program of research, consumer and producer education, and promotion designed to strengthen the egg industry’s position in the marketplace.” Luckily, “[n]othing in this Act shall be construed to mean, or provide for, control of production or otherwise limit the right of individual egg producers.” What a relief!
The American Egg Board is a textbook example of my usual complaint: a public-private circle jerk, “requested… by industry” but overseen by government for no other reason than to keep egg sales high in the face of health concerns and market competition. Nobody—nobody—should have the ability to abuse the government in this way. Levying taxes on all egg producers to generate a marketing budget is immoral. It doesn’t matter if this law was pushed by a single, huge egg producer run by a cheapskate or a large group of small-time egg producers wanting to benefit from the profits of their larger competitors. Even worse than that, hiding behind a shield of government oversight and administration while promoting products that can have dire health consequences is the worst kind of fraud. At least the NRA, with all its government dick-sucking, technically operates independently of the government (yes, it funnels plenty of money into politics and works hard to fight meaningful gun control legislation, but it does those things without literally being overseen by the government, and without the government imposing taxes on weapons manufacturers to support their activities).
If the American Egg Board has an immoral basis, is it any wonder that its campaign against “Just Mayo” included hiring a PR firm to pay bloggers to “smear” the product (see what I did there?)? Is it any wonder that the AEB worked closely with its USDA overlords to concoct ways of getting Just Mayo off store shelves, pushing the Food & Drug Administration to threaten Hampton Creek Foods and pushing Whole Foods to remove Just Mayo from their shelves? Is it any wonder that the federal government has literally entered a definition of what constitutes “mayonnaise” into the Code of Federal Regulations? This 100% real code reads as follows:
[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 21, Volume 2]
[Revised as of April 1, 2015]
[CITE: 21CFR169.140]TITLE 21—FOOD AND DRUGS
CHAPTER I—FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
SUBCHAPTER B—FOOD FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
PART 169—FOOD DRESSINGS AND FLAVORINGS
Subpart B—Requirements for Specific Standardized Food Dressings and Flavorings
Sec. 169.140 Mayonnaise.
(a) Description. Mayonnaise is the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and one or more of the egg yolk-containing ingredients specified in paragraph (c) of this section. One or more of the ingredients specified in paragraph (d) of this section may also be used. The vegetable oil(s) used may contain an optional crystallization inhibitor as specified in paragraph (d)(7) of this section. All the ingredients from which the food is fabricated shall be safe and suitable. Mayonnaise contains not less than 65 percent by weight of vegetable oil. Mayonnaise may be mixed and packed in an atmosphere in which air is replaced in whole or in part by carbon dioxide or nitrogen.
(b) Acidifying ingredients. (1) Any vinegar or any vinegar diluted with water to an acidity, calculated as acetic acid, of not less than 2 1/2 percent by weight, or any such vinegar or diluted vinegar mixed with an optional acidifying ingredient as specified in paragraph (d)(6) of this section. For the purpose of this paragraph, any blend of two or more vinegars is considered to be a vinegar.
(2) Lemon juice and/or lime juice in any appropriate form, which may be diluted with water to an acidity, calculated as citric acid, of not less than 2 1/2 percent by weight.
(c) Egg yolk-containing ingredients. Liquid egg yolks, frozen egg yolks, dried egg yolks, liquid whole eggs, frozen whole eggs, dried whole eggs, or any one or more of the foregoing ingredients listed in this paragraph with liquid egg white or frozen egg white.
(d) Other optional ingredients. The following optional ingredients may also be used:
(2) Nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners.
(3) Any spice (except saffron or turmeric) or natural flavoring, provided it does not impart to the mayonnaise a color simulating the color imparted by egg yolk.
(4) Monosodium glutamate.
(5) Sequestrant(s), including but not limited to calcium disodium EDTA (calcium disodium ethylenediamine- tetraacetate) and/or disodium EDTA (disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate), may be used to preserve color and/or flavor.
(6) Citric and/or malic acid in an amount not greater than 25 percent of the weight of the acids of the vinegar or diluted vinegar, calculated as acetic acid.
(7) Crystallization inhibitors, including but not limited to oxystearin, lecithin, or polyglycerol esters of fatty acids.
(e) Nomenclature. The name of the food is “Mayonnaise”.
(f) Label declaration. Each of the ingredients used in the food shall be declared on the label as required by the applicable sections of parts 101 and 130 of this chapter.
[42 FR 14481, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 57 FR 34246, Aug. 4, 1992; 58 FR 2886, Jan. 6, 1993]
Can you fucking believe that? Can you call it a free society when the government actually goes so far as to define, by law, the definition of mayonnaise?
If I believed there was any such thing as the “public interest,” maybe I could understand the need for this. The “public interest” is a sham, though. If you don’t think you agree with that, just ask yourself the question: whose public interest? Certainly not the interest of the employees of Hampton Creek Foods, whose jobs may be at risk. It’s not in the interest of the consumers (vegan and non-vegan alike) who enjoy Just Mayo. It’s not in the interest of the consumers who have never heard of Just Mayo and continue to slather a full quart of the hard stuff on their twice-daily BLTs.
I want to be clear here. I would not advocate a society where egg-containing mayo is banned in favor of “healthier” vegan mayo. The freedom to create different options and varieties to fill a market need, and to have them accurately named on store shelves for consumers to choose, is paramount. The government, by necessity, must remain a disinterested party when it comes to economic affairs such as these. Whenever they end up as enforcer to private interests, one man’s “public interest” comes at the expense of another’s. If the USDA and the FDA are in the pocket of Big Egg, it’s not just vegan food manufacturers who will suffer. The debate over the healthiness of eggs has raged for decades, which might possibly have something to do with why the AEB was formed in the first place (I can’t say for sure), which means that as the federal government promotes the “Let’s Move” campaign with one hand, they’re promoting incredible, edible heart disease with the other.
It’s not the inconsistency of these messages that bother me. It’s the fact that whenever the government becomes the promoter of how a person in a free society should (or legally must) live his or her life, it’s the entire society that loses. If there’s a genuine desire to keep corporate money out of elections, why aren’t we starting by keeping it out of government agencies?
The unfortunate answer is that bureaucrats, appointees, and elected officials benefit from the “public interest” much more than the public ever has or will. This will only change if it’s acknowledged and steps are taken to eliminate the cozy relationship between public office and “private” industry.
For reference, here are the nutritional facts and ingredients for Just Mayo:
As a comparison, here is the same information for Hellmann’s mayo:
Lastly, I will say this. Bear with me, because at the start it will sound like a crazy reversal. Let’s examine the label for Just Mayo, shall we?
Viewed from a distance, here’s what I see clearly: a giant picture of an egg, and the word MAYO in giant block letters. Careful consumer that I am, I would examine the ingredients list… But I know that not everyone is like me. Whole Foods shoppers may think they’re concerned about what they put in their bodies, but anecdotally, I know plenty who merely assume that buying a product from Whole Foods means it’s healthier and more ethically produced than going to Walmart. These less discerning consumers will see an egg, see MAYO, see that sort of earthy, brown-paper-bag type of label, and think, “Ah, a healthier, more ethical mayonnaise.”
Nowhere on the label does it state that it’s vegan or vegetarian (this could possibly be a legal issue, but I think I’ve done enough research into arcane laws for one blog post). In the tiniest of typefaces, it makes note of it what should be its greatest selling points: “Non-GMO, Cholesterol-Free, Gluten-Free, Egg-Free, Soy-Free, Dairy-Free, Lactose-Free, Kosher.” Even the word “Just,” which I assume is a pun related to its ethical ingredients list, is written in a light cursive script that is unreadable from a distance. All you see, scanning the aisles, is brown paper, egg, MAYO.
Is that misleading? Ignore, for a second, the FDA’s actual definition of mayonnaise. Ignore the baseline assumption that a product calling itself “mayo” of any kind must contain eggs. You see an item whose label has a giant picture of an egg on it. Would you, or would you not, assume it is an egg-based product?
An attorney would not be entirely wrong in arguing that (1) the small plant shape silhouetted against the egg is a clear symbol (if hard to see from a distance) of its substitution of eggs with vegetable products, and (2) all ingredients and nutritional facts are listed as required by the FDA, for any consumer to read if he or she chooses. It can’t, therefore, be misleading. Caveat emptor, dude.
As far as I’m concerned—and I am neither a lawyer nor a legal scholar, nor even particularly very smart, but I sure as shit have opinions—the entire issue of fraud comes down to intent. In the NPR article linked far above this paragraph, Hampton Creek Foods founder was quoted as saying of Just Mayo, “If we’re successful, there are a lot of [food] industries out there that are going to have to adjust.”
So, Hampton Creek makes an egg-free mayonnaise product with a picture of a giant egg on it and the word MAYO in bold, block letters. Its label does not prominently market the product as vegetarian or vegan. Josh Tetrick believes “a lot of [food] industries” will have to adjust if his company succeeds. I don’t want to put words in his mouth by trying to interpret what he means by that. I’ll leave that up to you.
But I know what I think it means, and I’ll let you know: it means that every aspect of this labeling is intentional. It means that he’s not interested in merely going after a vegan market. He wants Whole Foods shoppers to mistake Just Mayo for actual, egg-containing mayo. He’s hoping those non-vegan customers will like the product, eventually realize it contains no eggs, and then evangelize. Because trust me, as a tried-and-true meat-eater, few things turn me off more than “It’s vegan.” It’s probably a tough sell to anybody but vegans, a subset of a subset of the food market.
Everyone can benefit from Just Mayo, not just vegans. It’s in the “public interest” to obscure the fact that it’s a vegetable-based product, because these knuckle-dragging carnivores don’t know what’s good for them. If we could just trick people into giving it a try, we’re sure they’d love it—and they’d be better off for it!
Noble intentions or not, that’s fraud. It doesn’t matter if Josh Tetrick thinks this fraud serves a greater purpose; it’s still fraud, if you consciously design a label that convinces consumers to buy your product on false pretenses.
Tetrick doesn’t get to decide what’s in the “public interest.” Neither should the American Egg Board, the AMS, the USDA, the FDA, or anybody else. Regardless of justification, regardless of whether or not you personally agree with a group, one group’s interests does not take precedents over the interests of everyone else. The only thing that’s in the “public interest” is the protection of each individual’s right to make his or her own unforced choices. These choices may be stupid mistakes. These choices may be ones you disagree with. But in a free society, we are free to disagree, and we are free to make mistakes (stupid or otherwise), so long as we don’t intentionally harm others in the process. We are also free to listen to people we respect, love, and/or care about, and either heed their good advice or not.
We are not free to trick others or force them, against their will, to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. To far too many people in this country, whether they’re the fraudsters or the defrauded, freedom looks far too much like a scam far too often. But in a truly free, moral society—which we do not have—we’ll all be better off.