In a David vs. Goliath battle over sandwich spread labeling, things could get messy.
Unilever, the food giant that owns the Hellmann’s brand of Real Mayonnaise, recently filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek, a well-funded startup backed by the likes of Bill Gates. The upstart company is being accused of false advertising because its sandwich spread brand Just Mayo contains no eggs and is therefore not real mayonnaise.
The Food & Drug Administration stipulates that any product calling itself mayonnaise must contain one or more “egg yolk-containing ingredients,” and Just Mayo is made with yellow peas instead of eggs. The rules also require genuine mayonnaise to be at least 65% vegetable oil—which is why Kraft’s Miracle Whip, which doesn’t meet that standard, is not a mayonnaise and is technically classified as a salad dressing.
Unilever is demanding that Just Mayo change its labels, and it is seeking unspecified compensatory damages. The “harm is impossible to quantify because of the difficulty of measuring lost good will and sales” for Hellmann’s and other mayonnaise makers, the suit states. The suit claims that the “Just Mayo false name” has “caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever,” and that it’s “part of a larger campaign and pattern of unfair competition by Hampton Creek to falsely promote Just Mayo spread as tasting better than, and being superior to, Best Foods and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.”
On its website, Just Mayo states its spread is “outrageously delicious, better for your body, for your wallet, and for the planet.” In recent months, the product—which is vegan but isn’t marketed overtly as such—has appeared on the shelves of national retailers such as Whole Foods, Costco, and Walmart.
Putting taste aside because that’s a subjective matter, how can Just Mayo label itself mayonnaise when it’s not mayonnaise? Well, actually Just Mayo never says that it is mayonnaise. The product is always referred to as “mayo,” not “mayonnaise.” Hampton Creek maintains that there’s a difference, that it never claimed the product was genuine mayonnaise, and that the lawsuit is the result of Unilever and Hellmann’s feeling threatened in the marketplace. “We’re competing directly with a company that hasn’t had real competition in decades,” Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told the Wall Street Journal. “These things happen.”
Andrew Zimmern, the celebrity chef and Travel Channel personality who is quoted calling Just Mayo a “must have” on the Hampton Creek website, has created a Change.org petition against Big Mayo, asking others to join his effort to get Unilever to “Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies.” The online petition, which urges Unilever to drop the lawsuit and “focus more on creating a better world rather than preventing others from trying to do so,” has already registered more than 15,000 signatures. Look for the movement to spread.