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August 19, 2013

Best Laid Plans

Plant-based egg substitute could benefit millions of hens.

All Animals magazine, September/October 2013

Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick aims to revoluntionize the food industry with a plant-based egg alternative. Jordan Viola/Hampton Creek

Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, wants to change the world with a pale green powder. Called Beyond Eggs, it gets its color from a variety of pea—an ingredient the company’s scientists and chefs identified after testing 287 plants. There’s also sunflower and canola oil and other natural ingredients. One formulation of the powder can be used to replace eggs in baked goods like cookies. Another can be used in sauces like mayonnaise.

The food industry traditionally has used processed eggs—in liquid, frozen, or powdered form—to make these products. One third of the eggs produced in the U.S. today go for this purpose. Most of those eggs are laid on factory farms by hens crammed into battery cages—stacked enclosures so small that the birds can’t even spread their wings. Tetrick aims to take over much of the processed eggs market with a product he says is not only more humane, but about 20 percent less expensive, better for the environment, and healthier—it has no cholesterol and carries none of the food safety risks of eggs from factory farms.

"We want to decrease by 30 percent the number of egg-laying hens in battery cage facilities during the next five years."

This year, two major food companies will begin using Beyond Eggs. (The product will also be available to consumers through Hampton Creek’s website.) In the future, Tetrick hopes to develop a liquid product that could be used to make scrambled eggs.

Based in San Francisco, Hampton Creek already has several million dollars in venture capital funds and the endorsement of Bill Gates, who has identified it as one of the top companies shaping the future of food.

Beyond Eggs could potentially spare hundreds of millions of chickens from lives in battery cages, says Josh Balk, director of corporate policy for The HSUS’s Farm Animal Protection Campaign and an old friend of Tetrick’s. “Hampton Creek is a great example of how the humane economy can benefit animals,” says Balk, who helped the company get started. “In order to eliminate factory farming, consumers have to continue incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets.” Beyond Eggs could pave the way to ending battery cage facilities so that the only eggs on the market come from higher welfare, pasture-based systems.

In this edited interview with senior writer Karen E. Lange, Tetrick talks about where his vision for Beyond Eggs came from and where he hopes it will lead.

How did your concern for animals lead you to develop an alternative egg product?

About 1.1 trillion eggs are laid every single year globally. Most come from places that we wouldn’t be too proud of if we saw them, places that are awfully cruel, awfully unsustainable, and pretty bad for our health. And I just thought that there’s got to be a way to take the animal entirely out of the equation when it comes to conventional egg production and do something that’s better and less expensive.

Can you describe the typical commercial egg-laying facility?

It’s an industrial warehouse. It’s dimly lit, with row upon row upon row of cages stacked on top of each other, lining each wall. It smells of ammonia. And in each cage you have seven to 10 birds packed body to body. And you can see all the corn and soy that they’re fed. They have a water drip. And they’re left there for two years.

It’s radical abuse, beyond-the-pale abuse. Whether we think a bird in one of those cages is equal to our dog or our cat, or to a Bengal tiger or an Asian elephant, really isn’t the point for me. The point is, she’s a living being.

What is Josh Balk’s relationship to Hampton Creek?

He is the real inspiration behind everything that’s happening every single day here. We’ve known each other since we were about 16 years old. He was a pitcher who used to strike me out on a regular basis on the baseball field, and we’ve been best friends ever since.

I was raised in Birmingham, Ala., in a lot of ways completely blind to the environmental and ethical issues around our food system. And Josh, even when I was 18 or 19 years old, has been educating me, encouraging me to eat in a more humane way, and opening my eyes to how we can really change the world through food.

How does Beyond Eggs compare to eggs in terms of nutrition?

I would say it’s healthier. You’re avoiding food safety issues, you’re avoiding cholesterol, you’re avoiding allergens that eggs have. It does provide the same kind of protein, but no one’s eating a cookie for protein.

Can most people taste the difference between Beyond Eggs and powdered or shell eggs?

Usually, people can tell the difference, and they like ours better. The taste comes out a bit more in the product. So you taste the chocolate of the cookie more, for example. And they like the taste of the mayonnaise better. It’s not scary mayo; it’s not mayo made in a lab. It’s just really good mayonnaise that is priced competitively and doesn’t have cholesterol.

Do you foresee Hampton Creek’s products replacing most of the eggs produced in battery cage facilities?

All of them. We want to decrease by 30 percent the number of egg-laying hens in battery cage facilities during the next five years. We want to end animal suffering in the egg industry.

What are the company’s other long-term goals?

Our hopes for Hampton Creek are, in seven years, that when people think about food, we’re one of the companies they mention that are moving our system forward, that are creating millions of pounds—thousands of products—of food that respects animals and respects the environment. We’ll be outside the U.S., on the subways of Beijing, and on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, and Birmingham, Ala., where I was raised. We want to be the world’s most valuable company.


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