Will Food Be at the Center of the 2016 Election Plate?

Tasty, inexpensive food produced in a sustainable manner sounds like a hippie pipedream. If it is, the 45th U.S. president may be ready to take a toke.

Josh Tetrick, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek Foods Inc., has been running full-page ads in the form of open letters in the Sunday New York Times since June 21. The latest are addressed, “Dear Presidential Candidates,” and they challenge those politicians to help “solve an epic problem” with the world’s food supply. “Our outdated food system is the thread running through our most important problems,” the ad states, “from diabetes and obesity (health care), to food deserts (race relations), to the decline of our family farms (economy).”

Before dismissing it as a cheap publicity ploy, consider the fact that the campaign staffs of one Democrat, two Republican and one independent candidate have contacted Tetrick, including two of the actual presidential candidates, since the ad first appeared.

“If we started over,” the letter concludes, “good food—for the body and our land—would be 10X less expensive than crappy food.”

“Crappy food” is a phrase that recurs in the letters, which also have been addressed to food leaders, food company CEOs, millennials and senior citizens. The call to remake the production and processing of food ends with an invitation to e-mail or call Tetrick on his direct line (415-404-2372). And if you do, he’ll personally answer the call.

CEOs from two of the world’s 10 largest food manufacturers are supporters of Tetrick’s call to action (he won’t name them), though joining hands with Hampton Creek isn’t the point. “We are a food manufacturer,” he told me when I called. “In some ways, we compete with (other) food manufacturers. We don’t need them to partner with us, we need them to think differently about what they do.

“Part of the reason our campaign is resonating is that everyone wants to cast their vote to eat better.”

Tetrick founded Hampton Creek in December 2011, and the firm’s first product, Just Mayo, debuted two years later in Whole Foods stores. Protein from the Canadian yellow pea serves as the basis of an egg substitute in Just Mayo, as it does in Hampton’s two other products: Just Cookies and Just Scramble liquid eggs.

Instead of the typical path to product development, Hampton has fused a Silicon Valley approach to data analytics with virtual ingredient testing of plants. Data scientists, not food scientists, drive R&D that looks at the molecular structure, performance characteristics and other nutritional and functional aspects of individual plants, then catalogues them for potential use. The former lead data scientist for Google Maps is involved, and Hampton has attracted funding from Microsoft’s Bill Gates, a cofounder of Facebook and other technology leaders.

The company reaped a PR windfall in November, when Unilever North America filed suit against it for using the word ‘mayo’ in an eggless product. A month later, Unilever withdrew the suit and decided to let the FDA sort out the issue of label claims and standards of identity, but not before a change.org posting of a “Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies” petition attracted 112,418 signees and gave the product mounds of free publicity.

Unilever’s retreat came the same day that Hampton received $90 million in Series C funding, the most recent tranche in a total of $120 million capitalization it’s attracted in three years. Investors have placed a $500 million valuation on the firm, which currently has annual revenue of $48 million but which is projected to reach $120 million in 2016.

Tetrick’s claim of being a manufacturer notwithstanding, Hampton is following food start-ups’ tried and true formula of production outsourcing, relying on a network of copackers to meet orders. And while it brings a new approach to product development and an outsider’s perspective of the food industry, its leaders lack an understanding of how food processing has evolved. Sodium, sweeteners and fat may not be keys to healthy eating, but they cater to human taste buds and, in the case of salt, serve as a low-cost preservative that helps keep prices down by extending shelf life.

The open letter campaign will continue on page 5 or 7 of the Sunday Times for another three weeks, according to Tetrick. After that, he hopes to expand his plant-based movement to a wider audience and, with any luck, to the 2016 presidential campaigns.