Our Lingering Questions For Hampton Creek

Josh Tetrick, the charismatic founder of Hampton Creek, a food startup in Silicon Valley, bills it as one that uses science and technology to change the way the world eats. However, Tetrick has repeatedly found himself in trouble over company claims.

The most recent accusation comes in the form of an official letter from the FDA that alleges Hampton Creek’s “Just Mayo” product is misleading the public into thinking of it as mayonnaise.

A recent Business Insider article alleged Tetrick had exaggerated the truth about his startup, that it hadn’t actually analyzed as many plant samples as it claimed and did not have the extensive database it told investors and the press it was working on. The article also alleged Tetrick covered up a relationship, ordered the swapping out of employee severance forms and let his dog into the lab to eat Hampton Creek’s cookie dough product.

Tetrick wrote a response to that article on Medium, titled “My Response,” which addressed some points. But the Hampton Creek CEO glossed over or took a cavalier approach to many of the more germane questions raised.

Tetrick wrote on Medium that the BI article was based on “false and misguided reporting” that was already “discredited by people in science and journalism.” We don’t know who these individuals are and Tetrick wouldn’t connect us with them. We did our own searching and came up short.

Naturally, we wanted to know what was going on and why there seemed to be so many discrepancies between what Tetrick said and what others started telling us about the company. In response to further inquiries, Tetrick referred us to his Medium post. Still, there are some lingering questions about key claims made by the company.

Claim 1 – Hampton Creek is a food science and technology company building out the world’s largest plant database.

Tetrick told TechCrunch in June of last year that Hampton Creek planned to build the world’s largest plant database. He said his research team had already studied 4,000 plant varieties and whittled down their search for the perfect ingredient for some products in development to 13 species. “Instead of scrambling eggs, we’re scrambling plants and looking for the right characteristics,” Tetrick told TechCrunch at the time.

Tetrick corrected the BI article in his Medium piece to say the database was closer to 100,000 plant varieties. Perhaps that database has grown from 4,000 to 100,000. However, former employees who spoke to us on an anonymous basis said there was not such an extensive database and that there hadn’t been much research conducted on plants. Former employees also told us that Tetrick had a tendency to falsify or grossly inflate several metrics and research.

Also, sources close to the matter told us that the data science team and other prominent people in tech, including Ali Partovi and former chief data scientist Dan Zigmond, were brought on right before Hampton Creek’s Series C raise to make the startup look like more of a tech company. However, Partovi left after only nine days and several members of Hampton Creek’s data science team left or were dismissed shortly after the latest round.

Sources close to the matter confirmed that Partovi left his role at the company because the startup was not actually backed by scientific data and research and he did not want to be associated with the startup. Hampton Creek told press at the time that Partovi would still have a role as an advisor to the company. But that was news to Partovi, who denied any further involvement.

We reached out to Tetrick and asked him to show us the database and the research he’s done. Tetrick said he would at a later stage.

Tetrick wrote in an (unedited) text message:

“Hey Sarah, must of what we do is proprietary (as you know). With that said, and at a later stage, we are extremely proud to show it in the context of a fact-based piece.” 

Claim 2 – Bill Gates invested in Hampton Creek

The Bill Gates Foundation confirmed to us that it did not directly invest in Hampton Creek. It invested in Khosla Ventures. Hampton Creek took liberties with that investment and promoted it to the press – including in pitches to TechCrunch. Hampton Creek also mentions Bill Gates as a Hampton Creek investor in a company press release. A spokesperson for the startup clarified at a later date the investment was indirect.

Claim 3 – Tetrick’s dog Jake hasn’t been allowed in the lab for 2.5 years.

Tetrick refuted BI’s claim that his dog wandered the lab and ate cookie dough. On the surface, this seems silly to belabor. Dog eats cookie dough, loves it. But it’s horrifying to food scientists. Animals should never be in the lab and their presence can tamper with scientific research.

We have been at Hampton Creek when the dog was roaming around the lab. We’ve heard the same from other visitors to the facility. Hampton Creek’s lab facility is in an open area, right next to the main office. The dog is mild-mannered and mostly sleeping on the couch in the front of the office, but the lab is easily accessible to him and he’s free to wander around.

Claim 4 – Hampton Creek is partnering with 7-Eleven and switching all mayonnaise to “Just Mayo”

Hampton Creek told journalists that it has partnered with 7-Eleven. “They [7-Eleven] are an awesome group of people, and we’re proud to be partnering with them,” Tetrick told Fortune. Hampton Creek also pitched news outlets and posted on social media that 7-Eleven was making the switch to “Just Mayo” in all their stores, yet there’s no mention of it on the 7-Eleven website or newsroom and no 7-Eleven communications person has verified this as fact. It’s not even mentioned in a 7-Eleven tweet.

The language used by Hampton Creek to promote this deal with 7-Eleven, while not untrue, could definitely be misleading to the consumer. “Just Mayo” is only being used for the sandwiches the convenience store makes in-house, not all mayo sold in the store.

We went to several 7-eleven stores and didn’t find any “Just Mayo” being sold on the shelves.

It’s not clear why 7-Eleven wouldn’t announce this deal. It’s made plenty of other food and partnership announcements in the past. This is more likely a wholesale purchase from 7-Eleven – not a partnership – due to an outbreak of salmonella in eggs earlier this year. 7-Eleven did not get back to us for comment.

Claim 5 – “Just Mayo” was formulated in-house

Hampton Creek says its mayonnaise-like product “Just Mayo” was made by those inside the startup. According to our sources, food formulation and branding company Mattson at least partially came up with the formula for “Just Mayo.” Mattson was not available for comment on this claim. However, Tetrick followed this claim up in his Medium post with “We’ve always said that we started with a product development firm, and then opted to move R&D in-house.”

Tetrick mentioned in his Medium post that his in-house R&D lead expected the formulations to change after getting them from an outsourced firm in 2012. However, Tetrick mentions Mattson’s and Delve’s involvement nearly a year later in this article with GetFoodGenius dated April 2013.

“Mattson provided a framework for the endeavor as well as the means to ‘rev up’ production, while the ‘wickedly talented’ people from Delve provided the culinary braun,” Tetrick stated.

Claim 6 – The FDA “gets” what Hampton Creek is trying to do and the startup will sit down with the FDA soon to chat about it. 

Tetrick didn’t respond to our requests for comment on this but did tell Fast Company that Hampton Creek “had a good call with the FDA” and that they “get the import of what we are doing.” He also told Fast Company that Hampton Creek will “sit down with [the FDA] shortly” and that they “get it much more than folks realize.”

We reached out to FDA spokesperson Jennifer Dooren about those statements. Her response:

Have you seen the warning letter? The company has 15 days to respond to us (see the bottom of the letter for details on that).

The bottom of the FDA’s warning letter reads:

You should respond in writing within 15 working days from receipt of this letter. Your response should outline the actions you plan to take in response to this letter, including an explanation of each step being taken to correct the current violations and prevent their recurrence. Include any documentation necessary to show that correction has been achieved. If you cannot complete corrective action within 15 working days, state the reason for the delay and the time within which you will complete the corrections.

In the end, these claims are not earth-shattering or immediately harmful. But in the aggregate they show a clear tendency for Hampton Creek to gild the truth. Startups have a tendency to get excited about things and sometimes founders speak ahead of themselves. The key move, then, is to base your approach on the truth while ramping up the hype. Hampton Creek seems to be leaning closer to hype.

The idea behind Hampton Creek is big and wonderful – to make food both healthy and affordable for the world. I personally want to see something like Hampton Creek succeed — but I also hope it can find a way to do it honestly.