An investigator hired by Hampton Creek, the Silicon Valley food startup famous for its eggless mayonnaise, says a mysterious entity appears to be trying to sabotage it.
An unsigned letter sent this summer to an unnamed major retailer claimed that Hampton Creek had contaminated and mislabeled products, according to the investigator. And the return address indicated that it was from CEO Josh Tetrick — even though Hampton Creek denies he wrote it.
The investigator told BuzzFeed News that this was one of two known anonymous letters — and that the other was sent to Target, which issued a high-profile removal of Hampton Creek’s products as a result.
While it’s unclear whether the two letters were identical or sent by the same person, the identity of the sender or senders is “the million-dollar question,” said the investigator, who requested anonymity. “It’s clearly fraud.” He also said that Hampton Creek is “weighing their legal options.”
At the time it pulled the items in late June, Target publicly said that the allegations it had received were unconfirmed, but specific and serious enough to warrant action.
The claims included allegations that pathogens like salmonella and listeria were found in Hampton Creek products and at one of the facilities where the company’s products are made, that some products were incorrectly labeled as non-genetically modified, and that the company failed to list honey as an ingredient in its sweet mustard salad dressing.
This week, Hampton Creek said it’s working to get back on Target’s shelves after the Food and Drug Administration reviewed its products and told the company it found nothing of concern. Target had carried around 20 of Hampton Creek’s items, which include eggless mayonnaise, cookies, cookie dough, and salad dressing.
“More than a month ago, Target was led to believe that several of our products were mislabeled or unsafe,” Hampton Creek spokesperson Andrew Noyes said in a statement. “We’ve remained confident that our products were safe and properly labeled, and that when presented with the facts, the FDA would agree. As expected, they have. They informed us, after reviewing applicable evidence, that the matter is closed.”
A Target spokesperson said, "The products are still under review and we don’t comment on conversations we’re having with vendors."
News of the Target's decision to stop selling Hampton Creek products was originally broken by Bloomberg. The investigator said that in addition to being mailed in an envelope with a return label that falsely named Tetrick, the letter to the other retailer also indicated that a copy was sent to Bloomberg.
This is the latest twist in a tumultuous summer for Hampton Creek. Last month, Bloomberg reported that at least five members have left the startup’s board of directors, leaving only Tetrick.
But on Tuesday, Hampton Creek also got an effective green light from the FDA to use a proprietary ingredient — a mung bean protein isolate — in its forthcoming product, Just Scramble, an egg substitute that scrambles like an egg.
UPDATE, Aug. 9, 9:50 a.m.
This post now includes a statement from Target. It also has been updated to reflect that while Target stopped selling Hampton Creek's products, it was not officially a recall.
Stephanie M. Lee is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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