Mayonnaise is the most popular condiment in America; we buy an estimated $2 billion of it every year. And in recent months, a war for control over its future has been quietly brewing. On one side are major food processors interested in maintaining the eggy, oily status quo. On the other is a pesky outsider looking to expand the possibilities of what mayonnaise can be.
Call this one a victory for Big Mayonnaise. Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to Hampton Creek, a small San Francisco startup, warning that its ‘Just Mayo’ vegan spread cannot be called ‘mayo,’ because it doesn’t meet the minimum legal requirements to be labeled as mayonnaise.
Just Mayo, touted as a more environmentally friendly, healthful alternative to regular mayonnaise, made its debut in 2014, quickly gaining media attention and the patronage of well-heeled investors, including Bill Gates and Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang. Hampton Creek, which has been working on perfecting an “eggless egg” suitable for everything from cookie dough to breakfast scrambles, has made no secret of the fact that it’s aiming beyond the Whole Foods crowd. Since Just Mayo’s launch, the company has netted distribution deals with slew of mainstream grocery retailers, including Walmart, Korger, Costco, and even Dollar Tree.
In the FDA’s view, however regulation-compliant mayonnaise has eggs in it. "The term 'mayo' has long been used and understood as shorthand or slang for mayonnaise," the agency wrote in the letter, dated Aug. 12. The use of the term ‘mayo’ in the product names and the image of an egg on the label, “may be misleading to consumers because it may lead them to believe that the products are the standardized food, mayonnaise, which must contain eggs…neither product contains eggs,” it reads
The agency also warns that Just Mayo and the Just Mayo Sriracha variety don’t live up to certain nutritional claims on the company’s website. In particular, it says, there are implications that the products are heart-healthy and cholesterol free, but Just Mayo’s fat content is too high to warrant them.
Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tretick told the Associated Press Tuesday that he had a “really good conversation,” with the FDA and was confident that he wouldn’t have to change his product’s name.
The dustup comes after Unilever, parent company of giant mayonnaise brands Hellman’s and Best Foods, sued Hampton Creek in November 2014 for unfair business practices. The suit claimed that Just Mayo was deceptive to consumers because it didn’t contain eggs, and that its popularity was unfairly hurting the brands’ sales. In particular, Unilever took issue with Just Mayo’s labeling, which features an egg cracked by a pea shoot. The label, the suit said, gives the false impression that the product contains eggs (a point the FDA agrees with).
The suit was met with a wave of media derision and backlash from Hampton Creek supporters. In the Washington Post, Drew Harwell pointed out that the FDA’s definition was set in 1957, “decades before the phrase ‘vegan mayo’ even made sense.”
Others portrayed Uniever as bully and a sore loser, now that the market had found a way to potentially beat it. “So Hampton Creek has figured out how to make a mayonnaise product that avoids cruelty to animals (and salmonella), conserves huge amounts of energy, and costs less,” public health lawyer and food policy advocate Michele Simon wrote in a November blog post. “And if you’re wondering how it tastes, I was blown away by the similarity in flavor and texture.”
Noting that the product is clearly marked as egg-free on the label, she continues: “Hampton Creek is completely up front about what it’s doing: making a plant-based mayonnaise… this case is just a desperate attempt to get the courts to intervene in marketplace competition. (Funny how Corporate America loves the term 'free market' except when they are under threat.”
Unilever dropped the lawsuit in December to allow Hampton Creek to “address its label directly with industry groups and appropriate regulatory authorities,” according to a company statement. But depending on how the issue ultimately plays out, the FDA effectively taking Unilever’s side has the potential to influence how other big food companies handle threats to their market share.