Vegan outrage over a Hampton Creek cookie? Let’s get some perspective.

In recent days, it has come to light that Hampton Creek, the maker of Just Mayo and Just Cookies, produces one cookie with white chocolate chips, which contain milk powder. As could be expected, many vegans expressed their disappointment on Hampton Creek’s social media channels, sometimes gracefully, sometimes less so.

Hampton Creek’s mayo, dressings, cookie dough, and all but this one cookie in their food service range, are vegan. In the short time since it was founded, the company has been incredibly successful. It was able to raise almost one hundred million dollars of venture capital from Bill Gates and other big shots, allowing them to put together a dream team and invest a lot in research and communication. But Hampton Creek also helped demonstrate that a plant-based future is interesting to invest in. And they have helped further normalize plant-based eating with the enormous media attention they have garnered. More concretely, however, their products are now helping to make a vegan diet easier for everyone, and are being used by big food service providers in the US. And while they were at this, they have inadvertently stimulated Unilever to create their own vegan mayo. Talk about results!

So, what exactly is the shit-storm about? Some time ago, Hampton Creek signed a contract with the nation’s largest food service provider, the Compass Group. Hampton Creek would supply Compass with plant-based alternatives for their range of (non-vegan) cookies. Apparently, Hampton Creek has, so far, not been able to find vegan white chocolate chips that met with Compass’ approval. According to Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, it was a package deal: either HC supplied five vegan cookies and the one almost vegan macadamia cookie, or they wouldn’t get the contract and thus have no impact for the animals at all. So, HC decided to move forward, and supply Compass with their imperfect offering, while working on finding or developing suitable vegan white chocolate chips.

Many of the commenting vegans demonstrate incredulity at Hampton Creek’s inability to find or develop suitable white chocolate chips. I’m giving HC the benefit of the doubt, and am assuming that creating even one non-vegan product is not something that they would do without good reason, because they must know it creates confusion. So, I’m assuming that time or other factors were of the essence and that they were afraid of losing the contract – in which case, again, they would have had no impact for the animals at all.

Should Hampton Creek have held off cooperating with the food service provider until they had all vegan alternatives? Let’s assume Compass was patient enough and wanted to wait awhile. Would it have been better for Compass to go on, in the meantime, distributing their non-vegan cookies while they were waiting for Hampton Creek? I don’t think so. Like Tetrick says, every day that less animal products are used, is good for the animals. Maybe we have to admire Hampton Creek here for daring to get their hands a bit “dirty” on a non-vegan product. This whole situation makes me think of the issue many vegans have when individuals chose to go vegan in steps rather than overnight. What if someone who went vegan overnight was actually someone who did nothing until they could be perfect (i.e., go vegan overnight) and thus missed their chance of doing good for the animals by reducing?

Some vegans state that they can’t understand that Hampton Creek, in the time that this non-vegan macadamia cookie has been on the market, has not been able to come up with a vegan white chocolate chip. But who are we to say that this should be Hampton Creek’s priority right now? The little bit of milk powder is such a detail relative to the bigger picture (and yes, dear vegan friends, I know how cows are treated for dairy), and maybe Hampton Creek is in the process of developing very interesting and more life-saving products and contracts that take up their attention.

Maybe Hampton Creek could have been more pro-active in its communication about this, and could have anticipated (and maybe prevented) this kind of backlash. They could have explained their reasoning from the get go, rather than keep quiet about the offending cookie and only getting in the conversation when the vegans found out. On the other hand, it has to be said that Hampton Creek and CEO Josh Tetrick have been quite responsive on social media.

Other than this, I have a lot more difficulty understanding the reactions of the offended vegans than I have understanding what Hampton Creek did. I can read several things in these reactions, which I go into a bit deeper here, as they – in my humble opinion – are revealing for the often quite unstrategic ways of thinking that is rampant in the vegan movement.

Black and white, all or nothing thinking
Hampton Creek has done a ton of good for animals. It was, in fact, founded with the idea to do exactly that. In the eyes of the offended vegans, however, the presence of a tiny bit of animal ingredient in one product (milk powder in the chocolate chips in one product among their whole range of products) seems to annihilate all Hampton Creek’s efforts and good deeds. I saw many commenters saying they were unfollowing the company and wouldn’t support them or buy their products anymore. Not 100% vegan, so no good, right? This all-or-nothing thinking gets us nowhere.

Distrust of corporations
One commenter says: “You’ll happily disregard your morals and ethics and exploit animals for a share of the market and financial gain (…). What an absolute shame.”
Among many vegans (and other activists for social issues) the default attitude towards companies and the corporate world seems to be one of distrust. One aspect of this is to always reduce companies’ and CEOs’ motivations and intentions to mere greed. First of all, a desire to make a profit doesn’t seem to be the main motivation of Tetrick and Hampton Creek. They very obviously have a social mission and are definitely not a profit-only company. Secondly, we need to take into account that a venture like Hampton Creek is beholden to its investors, and does need to make a profit – otherwise it simply wouldn’t exist in this system. Thirdly, when a company like Hampton Creek does good business, they will acquire more impact and influence to change things for the better for animals. In that sense, the fact that money is a driver for many people can be seen as a positive thing, at least when it’s combined with some ethical fiber – which Tetrick and HC certainly seem to have.

Mistaking an ally for an enemy
I see it happen again and again: a company or organization does a lot of good, but watch out when vegans don’t agree, on when the company slips up! While there are more than enough horrible companies in the world, we seem to reserve a disproportionate part of our anger for the ones that are actually our allies. What we may be witnessing here is the so-called “black sheep effect”, where members of a group can be more hostile and unforgiving towards other members of the in-group when they make a mistake, than to people not belonging to the group. Offending in-group members are then seen as traitors. A lot can probably be explained by the fact that our expectations of them (they were one of us!) weren’t met. It’s the same with ex-vegans.

Putting purity and rules over pragmatism and results
Every decision here,” Tetrick has responded on social media, “is based on this fundamental principle: what will increase the probability of maximizing good (including alleviating suffering) for the longest period of time.”
Our movement is often obsessed with veganism and vegan rules, at the cost of results. Yes, Hampton Creek technically is not a 100% vegan company. But what if this creates more good for the animals in the long run?

Ignoring the importance of institutional change
In an article on this subject on Ecorazzi, the author writes: “Ultimately, I do not care what they do. They are a company created to make products to fulfill consumer demand, whether vegan or non-vegan. What I care about is what we do, individually. We need to continue to educate – clearly and simply – so that we change how our friends, colleagues and family perceive animals.”
I’m presuming I don’t need to explain why institutional change – which Tetrick set out to generate – is crucial for our movement, and that we won’t get there by just convincing one individual at a time to go vegan. We need institutional partners: companies, NGOs, governments, schools, hospitals and many more. They can have an incredible impact on supply and demand and help change the playing field for everyone.

A holier-than-thou attitude
In the comments of many offended vegans, I seem to be able to read that non-vegans can never be right, while vegans can never be wrong. I get the impression that the people who are very very very vegan, sitting behind their computer, think that they are better, more pure, more praiseworthy than the company they are criticizing, a company that in a short period of time has done an amazing job in changing the food system. Incidentally, I’ve seen so many vegans lecturing Tetrick and HC about the issues related to dairy. Do we seriously think that Tetrick is not aware of these issues?

Hampton Creek is a great company, which is doing its best to create a better food system. It’s still a company in an imperfect world, run by imperfect people. So, it will be imperfect. But it’s doing a ton of good. What if we would focus on the incredible amount of chicken misery that Hampton is preventing, rather than on the tiny amount of animal ingredients that is for the time being, and probably for good reasons, still in their products?

In other words: can we please get some perspective? When we’re no longer in the situation that 65 billion animals a year are being killed for food (excluding sea animals), then maybe we can get very worked up about the dairy in the chocolate cookie in a great product range of a great company. Until then, let’s focus on the big changes instead of the details. Let’s have some trust that some people really want to do the right thing, also in business. Let’s reserve our outrage for the really bad folks. And let’s follow our vegan rules as well as possible, but let’s be prepared to break them when it helps more animals.


My upcoming book How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (June 2017, Lantern Press), contains a whole chapter on how the vegan movement can relate to the corporate world.

PS: if I got my facts wrong, somebody let me know!

39 thoughts on “Vegan outrage over a Hampton Creek cookie? Let’s get some perspective.

  1. This is my first time to your site. How have I missed you? 🙂

    As a “philosophical vegan,” I really love your perspective on the Hampton Creek situation. In my life, showing people the friendly, kind, tolerant side of veganism is much more valuable than being hardline about it. Being a vegan is easy in theory –
    but not always as simple in practice… and especially not for a huge, successful food company in a country that devalues animals. THANK YOU for sharing the facts. HC is such an awesome “asset” to the vegan community, and I hope people will understand the bigger picture before indicting this great company.

    1. I’ve only just found this site too Meredith, via a vegan Facebook group! I share your positive view on Hampton Creek and Tobias’s pragmatic approach to creating a vegan world. It makes perfect sense to me! Governments, businesses and individuals as consumers will create more effective change together.

  2. I should definitely proofread better! Please note that in my first post … it should read “You CAN’T be vegan on Monday and eat a steak on Tuesday…” Moderator: Please feel free to change that in the original post if you can. Thanks

  3. Thank goodness Hampton Creek is willing to compromise a little bit for a little while in order to reduce total animal suffering. What the company is doing is called progress.

    Thanks Tobias.

    1. You’re joking right?
      How is using cows milk helping? There are baby cows killed for your white chocolate.
      It’s clear to me that this is only considered a good move by a vegetarian.
      And we all know vegetarians don’t see an issue with the cruel dairy industry….

  4. If you’re reading TL’s essay ‘just for perspective’, please do not forget that this so-called ‘pragmatic’ approach is not the only perspective, and is, indeed, only an opinion.
    The ‘effectiveness’ of it is entirely self-appointed, and talking of it as somehow more objective approach just because it stems from a philosophical position of utilitarianism? Don’t make me laugh.

    ‘Our movement is often obsessed with veganism and vegan rules, at the cost of results.’
    Proof/data? And by the way, aren’t you a vegan, Mr. Leenaert?
    After watching some of your talks, I’m beginning to seriously question if you have the ‘best of the animals’ on your mind, because the paradigm seems to be ‘vegans bad – refusing to exploit animals bad – perceived “purity” or moral principles bad – reducetarianism good – condoning animal abuse even better’.
    I’ve also seen a speech where you refer to a ‘this rabbit’ as some kind of an flesh-object, I realize this was anecdotical, but it seriously worries me as a proud parent of a nonhuman animal refugee of this exact species.
    I’ve also seen a speech where you present a false dichotomy of ‘my pragmatic approach vs. angry lunatic vegan shouting at people on the streets’, and I must say, this is a really unfair stereotype to choose to perpetuate, and also a basic logical fallacy.

    So, to other readers: for another perspective, be sure to read Emilia Leese’s essay as well, that Mr. Leenaert directly quotes from.

    As a vegan who does not disregard the actual, original meaning and goal of veganism (“put an end to the exploitation of animals by man”, and is not willing to sell out animals and disregard animal rights (yes, even in such individual cases), I find their position much more coherent, but maybe that’s just me.

    And the distrust of corporations is entirely understandable to me, but again, maybe it’s just that I don’t particularly appreciate exploitation in all it’s forms, or supporting a ‘lesser evil’ where the benefits ‘for the animals’ reaped are purely hypothetical.
    That being said, I agree with some of your points. But I disagree with most of them – we seem to be coming from quite different premises, from the very outset.
    ‘And let’s follow our vegan rules as well as possible, but let’s be prepared to break them when it helps more animals.’ – So, how does putting a stamp of approval on using animals for their secretions help more animals, exactly? I’m just curious.

    1. I read the linked essay and did not find it convincing.

      And if I hadn’t read Tobias’ original post but only your response, I would have thought that Tobias argued that vegans should eat these product containing milk ingredients (which he didn’t).

      However, the point, which you completely missed, is that the contract with Compass leads millions of non-vegans to purchase vegan cookies. That is because 4 out of 5 cookies are now vegan, whereas it could be 0 out of 5 if a different company was awarded the contract.

      Also, every vegan now seems to be an expert on food production and knows exactly that Hampton Creek is not saying the truth when they claim that they couldn’t find an adequate alternative…

    2. Tivadar, your questioning if i have the best interests of the animals in mind kind of triggered me enough not to want to engage with you, but thanks for your comment anyway.

    3. Hi Tivadar,

      While I agree with you that we should be aiming to end animal exploitation and cruelty, the idea that you can do so by presenting black-and-white thinking seems to me to be flawed. People who have just learned about animal abuse or have realised their past denial of it and wish to change might be alienated if they feel they must do so overnight.

      We must remember that most of us were not born vegans and would have gone through a process, some taking longer than others. I don’t think Tobias is putting a stamp of approval on dairy cow abuse here, but to answer your question, the more food producers who create vegan food, the easier it is for people to make the change.

      To have the quickest impact in persuading people to become vegan, we need to remove the barriers and for some people, especially those who work long hours and eat out a lot, or those who have young children, convenience could be a factor whether we like it or not.

      I’m being presumptuous in calling myself vegan, because I may not qualify as I wrote here on my nature blog: It would be good to feel included because I’m doing my best and changing my lifestyle as I learn more. I’m spreading the word too!

  5. I second Meredith’s comments above. How have I missed you? Thank you for this well researched, well written and totally rational response to Hampton Creek’s apparent “cookie-gate.” OMG can we all take a deep breath and maintain some perspective? Veganism is not a religion … there is no purity test. Every time you make a conscious choice NOT to put an animal product in or on your body. You are helping the cause. Of course, I believe that everyone who claims to be vegan should make a good faith effort to be consistent in their behavior – you can be vegan on Monday and eat a steak on Tuesday and claim to be vegan. But if our goal is to change hearts and minds … we have to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be. Thanks again for a wonderfully sourced and presented article.

  6. Tobias, thank you for always keeping the big picture in mind, and for reminding us of how important it is, for the animals’ sake, not to undercut ourselves or others in a misguided chase after purity. I do wonder how many of the vegans protesting HC for its milk-powder cookie work in the corporate world? If they don’t, the might simply not understand the hard realities of business, and therefore appreciate what an exceptional job HC has done with developing and marketing its vegan products. And, as you point out, it’s common to fall back on easy stereotypes about corporate greed. (Sigh.) Again, thank you for your thoughtful post.

  7. Just an observation – most vegans buy food from brands and supermarkets that stock both vegan and non-vegan products without issue, but seem to have an issue with supporting a vegan company that becomes mostly vegan for (at least if we trust HC) strategic reasons.

  8. Thank you Tobias for a wonderful blog post. As a “business person” I work every day with clients and know the hard work is in compromise as often our greatest desires cannot be accomplished with the current infrastructure, life facts, est.. Life cannot be lived in black or white terms, but in the often fuzzy grey area. Hampton Creek is doing what they need to do now. “Do the most good for the most animals” comes to mind. I have no doubt that this is a temporary state of affairs and that a vegan white chocolate chip will be available in the future for these cookies. We cannot afford to be purists while animals die.

  9. I fail to understand why A. HC could not find a white chocolate vegan candy (maybe it does not exist?) OR B. made another vegan cookie and forgot about the white chocolate? Did they inform customers that this new cookie was not vegan? False advertising for a business is very serious. What about people with milk allergies? I would not use their products again if I bought this dairy cookie and was told it was vegan. I like to buy from a purely vegan company as much as possible.

    1. It’s likely that people with serious milk allergies (and most vegans, for that matter) read the labels on everything they buy. I would hardly call this false advertising—especially since they call the non-vegan chocolate an “imperfect solution” and intend to phase it out.

  10. While i agree with most of the sentiment of this article there were 3 milk ingredients… the whole milk powder and nonfat dry milk AND milk fat in the ingredients. I saw a comment by Josh though showing him holding a container of the dairy free chips they are in the process of manufacturing so it is something they have been working on so probably was the case of scenerios like this article said.

  11. I can’t help but compare those people who focus on this ridiculous minutia to Nero, the Roman emperor who, as legend has it, fiddled while Rome burned to the ground all around him. This is the same mindset as these few ‘purists’ who focus on their own values of self-purity under the guise of caring about the Animal Rights movement as a whole. Their motivations are often for reasons other than the greater good of helping to end the animal holocaust as quickly as possible, so while it rages all around them, they waste time and energy on some remote ‘problem’ that they exacerbate, and that, at the end of the day, is irrelevant to the cause. Upwards of 70 BILLION land animals are being slaughtered for food every year, and you’re focusing on a few candies in some cookies? How in the world does this HELP that situation? Hampton Creek is a major leader in innovation, in getting its products widely distributed, and in reducing animal use, abuse, commodification, and slaughter. If they are imperfect in every step they take, well, we’re all living in an imperfect world, and we have to adjust as best we can. Their solutions focus on the big picture, on keeping their train rolling at full speed ahead, because THAT is what will best serve the goal of most rapidly reducing animal suffering and slaughter. You can keep dreaming about that “perfect world” that will never, ever happen, while Hampton Creek and others like them work around the clock to continue to advance the cause of eventual Animal Liberation. That is the ultimate goal, is it not? To liberate all sentient animals from suffering and slaughter as quickly as possible? Veganism is but ONE tool we need to help get us there. Veganism is most certainly not the only tool, and while you focus on perfecting your own veganism, to the exclusion of other necessary tools and paths that our movement must take to reach Animal Liberation, please realize that you may not be helping, and in fact, may be holding the movement back.

    1. Jeff: Many thanks for these remarks. I especially appreciate your observation about the underlying motives of purists who profess to be concerned only with animal rights and welfare. Also agree completely with Kimberly, above, that “[w]e cannot afford to be purists while animals die.”

  12. Agree with the ‘how have I missed you?!’ sentiments! Thank you for so elequently stating so much of how I feel.

  13. Are you aware that it has been over 2 years since they got the contract?
    Does it make sense that they still didn’t find vegan white chocolate chips and didn’t think they need to come forward with this information to the public?

    1. assaf, i can understand your concern/impatience. Still, I’m not going to vent any outrage for this because 1. i don’t know their reasoning, situation, internal stuff going on and 2. like i said, i think it’s a detail within the bigger scheme of things.
      if i find out more, i’ll update.

  14. How were the cookies labelled? If the incorrectly said vegan, dairy free, etc I see that as a problem. If the ingredients listed milk then what’s the problem?

  15. Tobias, I’m so sick of you and your pro-rape attitude!

    Obviously, I’m kidding. As always, thanks for putting aside the fetishizing of “vegan” and putting getting results for animals first. 🙂

  16. Hampton Food has benefited a great deal from free publicity given by vegans, on the assumption that Hampton Food was actually a vegan company. But, as you say, anything for money. They clearly weren’t going broke before they decided to make non-vegan cookies.

    I say this knowing I will get the usual spiteful and malicious remarks from Tobias and his acolytes. And I don’t care, because someone has to stand up for principles.

    1. i’ll try not to be “malicious” here, but I think that there is something malicious (or at least uncharitable) in just assuming that it’s all for the money, especially when someone like the explicitly denies this, and talks about his own principles.
      Anyway, my answer to your comment is in the article itself. If you have different principles, or stick to them longer and more unconditionally than others, that’s all fine and there is value in that too, I guess.

  17. The things vegans debate about it…..didn’t read much on the background of this but the first thing that came to mind is that the standard of identify for “white chocolate” (as defined by the FDA) includes milk solids, see here:

    ” It contains a minimum of 20 percent cocoa butter, a minimum of 14 percent of total milk solids, a minimum of 3.5 percent milkfat, and a maximum of 55 percent nutritive carbohydrate sweeteners. (21 CFR 163.124)”

    So without the milk solids….you couldn’t call it white chocolate and then it becomes a marketing problem. I have no doubt that you could make a reasonable vegan white chocolate so I think this is likely the issue.

    1. i agree that this is one more post that i shouldn’t have had to write.
      interesting point you make.

    2. These laws are stupid, people don’t eat white chocolate because there’s dairy in it, they eat it because it’s good! And if they write dairy-free on the box then it shouldn’t count as false advertizement, it’s not like people are stupid…

      It it an interesting point indeed

  18. Honesty and integrity are central to labeling a product. Using dairy in any form voids the description “vegan”, and the package of cookies containing dairy should not be labeled as such. Folks who are severely allergic to diary rely on ingredient content lists to inform them of what to consume and what to avoid. All the other points made about the company and its business practices have nothing to do with misleading labeling. If the product contains dairy, don’t label it as “vegan”. End of story.

    1. this would of course be a problem, but no one said the package says vegan. i’m not even sure there IS a package. this is for the food service industry. no one having a cookie in say a hospital would by default *expect* it to be vegan at this time.

  19. If you cut corners one way, you can cut on others. VEGAN means NO DAIRY. Period

    Disappointing. I will re-think Hampton, who by the way is owned by HSUS employee. The same people trying to help factory farm animals, ie: cows. They should not put $$$ over ethics.

    1. weird how people never stop to comment with the exact points that i’m making in the article. have you read it at all?

  20. Agreed that this kind of outrage generally helps no one. I’m an ethical vegan, and not just a dietary one, and this kind of stuff frustrates me. That said, I can see being angry at this if you generally have the expectation that a company’s entire line is vegan and then they screw up on one product. Maybe because you believe the whole company to be 100% vegan you stop checking labels (this happens A LOT when you have the expectation that any product from said company is going to be safe). Sometimes when that happens and people buy something they later find out to be problematic, it feels like betrayal, even if the company never put “hey guys everything is 100% vegan 100% of the time, no exceptions!” on the label.

    It also seems very silly that they couldn’t find white chocolate chips without milk over the course of a long development time. Even if that were the case, just make another cookie. You’re right, we don’t know what was going on internally, or if they were contracted specifically to provide a product that had the white chocolate, but in that case, they should have done a much better job communicating with the people who make up their core demographic, who they delivered a product to that doesn’t live up to expectations. Is it worthy of total outrage? No. And you’re absolutely right that this attitude alienates people and ultimately turns people off to veganism in general, which is why so many stupid vegan stereotypes still exist. Yes, guys, reductionism is okay. Any change in the right direction is positive, and has the chance to build on itself. But with that said, I’m not willing to let HC off the hook here. It does seem like this was handled a bit poorly.

    Lastly, a couple words about corporations. For-profit companies have a bad habit of bait-and-switch tactics when they think they can get away with something, and many vegans have been burned by this sort of behavior in the past, often before they’d even made any sort of major dietary switch (remember that industry corruption is often a big reason people decide to walk out on tradition). HC may in fact be a great company, but there are a lot of others that aren’t. So while this is probably all a big overreaction, you’re talking about a group of people who pretty much define themselves by boycott: we exist as a group because we opt out of using animal products. We’re a group founded on the principle of walking away, so when somebody makes a misstep like this, it’s not much of a stretch for us to just leave them behind. Given a wider context, maybe that’s not fair, as you point out, but I’d bet you a large sum that the vast majority of the people making complaints didn’t have real access to any wider context. They were just presented with a non-vegan product from a company they trusted. I’m not going to fault them too hard for being pissed about that, even if I think overkill outrage isn’t the right response.

    To be honest, this is one of a number of reasons I increasingly avoid processed food. Aside from it not being very good for you, even when vegan, I get kind of tired of the ingredient scrutiny, giving the constant side-eye to company behavior, and the drama that comes when ingredients or behavior fail to meet standards. By comparison, it’s hard to argue with a box full of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local farm.

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