Jesse Laflamme spent years trying to save his family's third-generation egg farm from bankruptcy, including waking up every day at 4 a.m. to rouse stubborn hens. Today, with $177 million in annual revenue, Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs is the No. 2 egg brand in the country--yet it's once again staring down impossible odds: getting the FDA to change its rules on what it considers "healthy."
The Food and Drug Administration has strict rules governing food labels' nutrient content claims, but it also broadcasts puzzling inconsistencies. For example, the agency says an egg has too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol to be considered healthy, but seemingly bad-for-you foods like low-fat pudding, which may be rich in potassium, calcium, iron, and vitamin D are considered healthy.
Meanwhile, the FDA itself says it plans to change its rules regarding what it deems healthy, but it's unclear when it'll do so. It first announced its plans to redefine the "healthy" nutrient content claim for food labeling in September of 2016, and extended the comment period to April of last year. Few details have been released since then, and the FDA did not answer Inc.'s specific questions about the status of the redefinition and criteria, whether there have been any updates to the public process, and why it has taken so long.
To Laflamme, the CEO of Pete and Gerry's, the FDA's delay is insult to injury. "It's so antiquated and out of touch. The idea that a toaster pastry--a Pop Tart--is healthy or that Jell-O is healthy is crazy... We know we are shortchanging ourselves by not being able to say eggs are healthy," says Laflamme. "This is stupid, and it's time to fight back."
Taking the FDA to task.
So he did. Pete and Gerry's filed a citizen's petition with the FDA in late April, calling for the agency to modify its labeling regulations so egg brands can put the word "healthy" on their products. To the best of Laflamme's knowledge, no other egg company has filed a similar petition with the FDA.
But brands have certainly scuffled with the agency in the past. One prime example is Kind. The New York City-based snacks startup, launched in 2004 by Daniel Lubetzky, had a similar experience with the FDA in March of 2015. When the agency took issue with its use of the word "healthy" on its bars, like the almond and apricot flavor, the FDA sent a warning letter saying certain products didn't meet the administration's requirements for use of the word healthy.
"You should take prompt action to correct the violations," William A. Correll of the FDA New York District wrote in the letter obtained by Bloomberg. "Failure to promptly correct the violations may result in regulatory action without further notice, including seizure and/or injunction."
Kind started a citizen's petition in December and posted a letter on its website that said nuts--which are a key ingredient in Kind products--contain nutritious fats that exceed the amount permitted under the FDA's standard. "This is similar to other foods that do not meet the standard for use of the term healthy, but are generally considered to be good for you, like avocados, salmon and eggs," according to the letter. In May of 2016, the FDA reevaluated its decision, saying Kind could return the original language to its packaging.
Then, in September, the agency announced it would adjust its guidelines. "Redefining 'healthy' is part of an overall plan to provide consumers with information and tools to enable them to easily and quickly make food choices consistent with public health recommendations," according to a statement from the FDA at the time. "And to encourage the development of healthier foods by the industry."
The FDA receives about 200 petitions a year and encourages people to petition the agency to change or cancel a regulation, according to its website. Laflamme is hopeful Pete and Gerry's will see the same success as other brands that have waged war with the FDA.
More than words.
The FDA has 180 days to respond to Pete and Gerry's petition. Even so, he's not keen on waiting. Getting the word "healthy" on Pete and Gerry's label may sound unnecessary to some, but Laflamme says his company frequently receives questions like, "how many eggs should people eat per day?" He attributes those queries to an older way of thinking and hopes an updated label will help dispel those beliefs.
"A whole generation grew up being told eggs were harmful," says Laflamme. "I think it's just one more element that is going to contribute to a more favorable consumer perception of eggs."
That public perception could also help boost sales--not just for Pete and Gerry's, but also for other egg companies. "Ultimately, I think it will help all egg sales, as much as I hate to help the caged egg people," Laflamme says. "It's a good thing, but it's also doing the right thing for consumers."
Clarification: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Kind's adoption of the word "healthy" on its packaging. The company has always used the term.