The Most Underrated Business Story This Year Was The American Egg Board’s Plot to Take Down Eggless Mayo

So many impressive business stories were published this year that I’m fairly confident I could list 50 in five minutes flat. Many have been noted in various roundups like this, and this and this.

But there’s one magical business story from this year that flew under the radar as far as lists go. I’d even gander (ahem) that it’s the most underrated of its genre. I lay before you: the American Egg Board-Hampton Creek eggless mayo scandal.

If you followed the saga of Hampton Creek, which makes Just Mayo, and the American Egg Board this fall as avidly as I did, I give you a virtual nod of respect and camaraderie. But I write for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, because you’ve been in the dark for way too long.

The gist: Internal emails released online and to the Associated Press in September showed that the American Egg Board, which is overseen by the government, spent 2013 and 2014 completely freaking out over tiny Hampton Creek as “a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.” (The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request; no Egg Benedict Arnolds over there.) As per the emails, the board hired Edelman for crisis comms, paid bloggers to tout all-natural eggs versus egg replacers, attempted to remove Just Mayo from Whole Foods, and corresponded with Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, about suing Hampton Creek. One board member joked about offing the Hampton Creek CEO.

This was generally insane, especially as the board’s mission is to “increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion.” (i.e. creating a “Wake Up to Eggs with (Kevin) Bacon” campaign.) The AEB CEO stepped down shortly after the leak, a few months before she was set to retire. She spent most of her life championing eggs.

The details only get better.

  1. This AP story describes how the egg board handled a tense Twitter moment with Hampton Creek. It’s a Grade A exchange.

“In late 2013, a representative for the PR firm Edelman alerted board executives that Hampton Creek had ‘just engaged with us directly on Twitter’ to challenge it to a bakeoff. The representative advised the board to keep close tabs on reactions to the post — but not to respond.

That was in line with previous advice from an Edelman executive, who compared the situation to a political campaign, where real eggs are the incumbent or ‘800 lb. gorilla’ and Hampton Creek is the insurgent. He said engaging would help legitimize Hampton Creek.

‘Can you imagine Hillary Clinton today agreeing to a debate to a little known, left-wing member of her party?’ the PR executive wrote.”

It’s a strong point.

2. In the documents online, the American Egg Board was accused of trying to join the American Association for Sauces and Dressings to lobby the group. (A representative gently rebuffed the Egg Board applicant and refunded her $1,206 membership fee. They’ll have to ~catch up~ another time.)

3. It’s mind-boggling to consider this entire world of hyper-specific food boards. They’re industry-funded but overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making them quasi-governmental bodies. There’s also the “Fluid Milk Board,” aka the folks behind years of “Got Milk?” ads, a Popcorn Board and a Mushroom Council. Its website is a sitcom idea goldmine.

4. When the now-departed egg board CEO announced her retirement this spring, a release saluted her 40 (!) years of dedication to eggs. The chairman said: “This reminds me of a quarterback who retires after winning the Super Bowl. We have just won the Super Bowl with all the recent incredible news in our industry.” The Super Bowl of eggs.

5. Photos of “key people” involved with the egg board scandal were posted online with the leaked emails. They don’t look villainous at all. They look exactly like a group of people who are headquartered in Park Ridge, Illinois, doing everything they can to make you eat more eggs.

Give ’em (s)hell!

So, that’s about it. Government affiliated organizations you’ve never heard of, a sturdy brand in crisis, longtime industry leaders gone awry, the hatching of devious plans, high-stakes Twitter encounters. And eggads, the opportunity for puns! Who knew how important mayonnaise was for the egg industry?

If you’re hungry for more, look here and here. And thank you, world, for being such an unpredictable place. Happy new year!

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