SAN FRANCISCO -- Josh Tetrick, the CEO and founder of food startup Hampton Creek, has an idea for the 2016 election's plethora of candidates: Talk about food.
Speaking Tuesday at Dreamforce, Salesforce's annual conference in San Francisco, Tetrick noted that despite the vast importance of food, and the complicated, often contentious policy debates over its growth, distribution and consumption in the United States, the topic is virtually absent from the presidential campaign.
"Food is not talked about," he said. "We know climate change is not talked about, but food as an issue area ... is not talked about as the center of things, as something that connects these different issues together."
Food policy and regulation may not be at the forefront of the presidential campaign, but they have made national headlines in recent weeks. On Tuesday, a new report assessed the use of antibiotics in meat and poultry supplies for 25 major chain restaurants, giving 14 chains a grade of "F." Last week, McDonald's announced its plan to transition to using only cage-free eggs over the next decade. And in early September, Chipotle was sued for claiming its menu is now free of genetically modified organisms.
Tetrick wants the presidential hopefuls' consciousness of food issues to match that of the public. So in August, he took out a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times pressing the candidates to make the food system a campaign issue.
"You have an opportunity to solve an epic problem," he wrote. "Before you solidify your stump speeches and code your website, ask yourself this question: what would it look like if we started over in food?"
Tetrick told the Dreamforce audience that he received responses from four presidential campaigns -- two Republican and two Democratic. One candidate, he said, called his cell, wanting to talk about "this food thing" in more detail.
"I think that's pretty powerful if we can figure out to make that happen in the upcoming election," he said.
Hampton Creek launched three years ago with the mission of making healthy food more accessible (and better tasting). The company is perhaps best known for Just Mayo, an eggless version of the classic sandwich spread, but has expanded its roster to include egg- and dairy-free cookies, cookie dough and, soon, Just Scramble, an egg alternative. Tetrick said the company is also working on plant-based versions of other popular foods like ice cream, pasta and dips.
The idea of creating tasty and affordable plant-based foods has gained traction in Silicon Valley. In December 2014, Hampton Creek announced it had raised $90 million in its latest financing round, bringing its total funding to $120 million. Investors include Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, Salesforce chief Marc Benioff and Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing. The company also has a fan in Bill Gates, who has both financially backed the venture (via an indirect investment) and featured the company on his blog.
The company, however, has hit a few obstacles along the way.
Last year, Unilever, the maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise, sued Hampton Creek for false advertising, claiming the company could not use the word "mayo" to describe an eggless product when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines the sandwich spread as containing egg yolk. Unilever later dropped the suit.
But in August, the FDA sent a warning letter to the company over its labeling, saying the company could not describe Just Mayo as mayonnaise because of its lack of eggs and its inclusion of ingredients not included in the "standard of identity" for the condiment. That same month, Business Insider published a story based on interviews with former Hampton Creek employees, alleging that the company had stretched the truth in its labeling and used "shoddy" science.
Tetrick, however, remains defiant, telling Bloomberg earlier this month he has no plan to change the product's name. The company also scored a tentative win when the Associated Press published a report on documents showing the American Egg Board had campaigned against Just Mayo and attempted to block its sale at Whole Foods stores.
Tetrick addressed the egg board campaign during a Q&A session after his speech, calling the documents "headspinning." He urged the audience to consider food policy when weighing who to vote for in upcoming elections.
"Electing candidates that are thinking about food," Tetrick said when asked how individuals could protest the FDA's actions against the company. "Electing candidates that realize that food doesn't have to be this separate issue for fancy people, but it can be an issue that's central to all of us."