The US egg shortage is good news for this startup that wants to replace eggs with plants

There’s been panic among food distributors and restaurants as egg prices in the U.S. have skyrocketed. By one USDA measurement, prices more than doubled between May and June.

Eggs, after all, aren’t just made for scrambling. They are in everything from mayo to cookies to pancakes to ranch dressing.

The US egg market has been suffering since a new strand of avian flu was identified in January. As of June 18, 30 per cent of layer hens associated with egg products have been affected, according to the American Egg Board. Iowa’s governor declared a State of Emergency because of the more than 31.5 million poultry birds affected. Companies have started bracing for higher egg prices and ultimately an egg shortage.

That’s when Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said he started getting the emails — at least 65 by his count.

Tetrick started Hampton Creek in 2011 as a way to reduce the resources used by the current food system. The company is working on ways to reduce the amount of water or land it takes to grow foods, Tetrick said.

“We wanted to create a company that wanted to do food in a new way, that was kinder generally,” Tetrick said. “It turns out, the fastest way to get there is to look at all these plants.”

Biz Carson/Business InsiderEgg prices have gone as high as $US6 for a dozen eggs. Here’s what the prices are like at a Safeway in San Francisco.

The company pairs scientists and chefs to study plants and transform them into a viable substitute for animal-based foods. The products are vegan as a result, but the Hampton Creek doesn’t want to brand itself in a niche market.

It’s worked, and the company already debuted two popular plant-based products that are sold everywhere from Costco to Walmart.

Its Just Mayo product is made with yellow pea protein instead of eggs. Its Oprah-praised Just Cookies and edible cookie dough is made out of sorghum.

As the bird flu spread, companies started asking for everything from egg patties to muffins, Tetrick said.

Hampton Creek tastingBiz Carson/Business InsiderInside Hampton Creek’s headquarters, the company tests different mayos and dressings.

Some of those resulted in big name contracts. Hampton Creek shipped its Just Mix powdered egg substitute to General Mills. It also announced a contract with 7-Eleven to replace all of its mayo in its convenience stores with Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo product.

It’s also expedited production on new products, like a pancake mix, which will be released in a few weeks.

“It’s been a whirlwind for us. We didn’t start this company as a solution to avian flu,” Tetrick said. “Things like avian flu make me want to run away from the current way we’re doing things.”

The company pushed up production on its new Just Pancakes mix, which it will release in a “few weeks.” It also plans to launch a scrambled egg patty in November, Tetrick said.

Substituting eggs with plants isn’t easy though.

The challenges of faking eggs

First, there was the legal challenge. Its Just Mayo product was the target of a high-profile lawsuit by Unilever over the term “mayonnaise.” Unilever eventually dropped the suit.

Hampton Creek kitchenBiz Carson/Business InsiderThis is not your normal kitchen. Ben Roche prepares scrambled eggs at Hampton Creek’s headquarters in San Francisco.

There’s also the challenge of just getting it to taste right and work for the existing food and restaurant markets.

The company has played around with different plant proteins for its Just Scramble liquid egg substitute, and has often struggled to find the right balance. Consumers will want it to look like an egg when they’re pouring it, and then behave like an egg once it hits the pan, said Ben Roche, a chef at Hampton Creek.

“At one stage, it kept deflating and then it wants to just cook together,” Roche said.

Deflating isn’t a word you want to hear when it comes to eggs, which is why the company continues to try different plants. Its Just Scramble product isn’t on the market yet, and will likely be released to the food services industry first.

When Business Insider visited Hampton Creek’s headquarters, we got to try out the scrambled eggs. They hit the pan in an egg-like fashion, but it eventually seized up more into a patty. There’s no easy scrambling like you get with a traditional egg yet.

The taste, on its own, isn’t there either.

The eggs (as my brain was telling me they were) had the flavour of plants, unless I dipped them in the provided Indian black salt which has some of the sulphur flavoring that gives eggs their distinct taste.

Paired with the provided tomatoes and onions, the (plant) eggs were delicious.

Hampton Creek scrambled eggsBiz Carson/Business InsiderThe Just Scrambled eggs with some black salt (which is actually purple) in the background.

Hampton Creek isn’t rushing to market with its Just Scramble until its perfect though, and the companies clamoring for help from the bird flu were looking for other solutions.

The french toast I tried was much better. The company had to find an egg substitute that would crisp up and have a good flavour even when exposed to high heat. This was tasty both with and without the provided syrup.

Hampton Creek french toastBiz Carson/Business InsiderThe french toast from Hampton Creek was super delicious.

The pancake mix being released later this month was developed in house by Hampton Creek’s chefs. It will come in a box like your traditional powdered pancake mix, but be plant-based as well.

The company is also developing a range of dressings including thousand island, honey mustard, a light ranch, and a regular ranch.

Even if the company can conquer our taste buds, shouldn’t it be worried that its own version of a bird flu could hit crops instead?

For instance, a lot of sorghum growers were expecting serious insect damage this year, although conditions changed and the crop was saved.

But Tetrick said he isn’t the least bit concerned, insisting he already has procured enough of the specific plants the company needs for now. Part of the company’s mission going forward will be trying to help farmers and change the food economy around the globe, he said. It’s all a part of starting over.

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