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What happens when a $60 billion, multi-conglomerate juggernaut feels picked on in the schoolyard by the new, smart loner kid with only a couple of friends to their name? They sue the Pants off of them, of course.
In one corner is Hampton Creek, the innovative company that brought us Just Mayo, a brand whose focus on sustainability is at the heart of its decision to come up with alternate ingredients in creating their offerings. Their mayonnaise contains yellow peas instead of eggs to deliver the richness and mouthfeel that fans of the condiment enjoy, a feature that is alluded to on their product label by an egg being cracked by a pea shoot.
In the other corner is Unilever, who owns Hellmann’s, a brand that produces a traditional recipe mayo. They also own Best Foods, Ben and Jerry’s, Breyers, Knorr and Lipton – just to name a few. Unilever is claiming that Just Mayo is using false advertising with their egg and pea shoot logo, leading consumers to believe that the product contains eggs while it does not. The fact that the label also clearly states that the product is egg-free apparently has no relevance here.
Furthermore, they claim that Just Mayo’s assertions that their product beat both Hellmann’s and Best Foods in taste tests lacked testing and that, by not containing eggs, their product failed to live up to the FDA’s definition of mayonnaise, which must contain “egg yolk ingredients.”
Let’s be clear here. Fighting about semantics isn’t new when it comes to trying to keep smaller companies from gaining a toe-hold in markets dominated by big business. The use of the word “milk” has been a battle between dairy interests and plant based milk manufacturers for years, with a lawsuit going before a California judge as recently as 2013.
That lawsuit against Dean Foods Co., WhiteWave Foods Co., and Horizon Organic Dairy complained of much the same thing as the current Unilever suit, stating that the FDA’s definition of milk was a substance that came from a “lactating cow.” The suit was dismissed.
Also, Hampton Creek is not the first company to make a vegan mayonnaise. While products like Follow Your Heart’s Vegenaise and Nasoya’s Nayonaise call themselves “spreads,” other products like Trader Joe’s Reduced Fat Mayonnaise and Boulder Brand’s Mindful Mayo are devoid of eggs, yet still call themselves mayo. They’re not being sued, so what gives there?
In the suit, Unilever states that “Hampton Creek is seizing market share from Unilever’s Best Foods and Hellmann’s brand of mayonnaise products.” Oh, now we get down to it. Unilever is threatened by innovation, something they themselves attempted in 2006 when they tried unsuccessfully to produce their own egg-free mayonnaise. We guess it was okay to ignore FDA regulations when they were the ones innovating. Ever see that movie Stand and Deliver where the school board insists a group of inner city kids cheated because they all kicked ass on an AP Calculus test? It’s kinda like that. Hampton Creek succeeded where Unilever did not. Party foul!
If successful, the terms of the lawsuit ask that Hampton Creek change their name entirely, halt all production of the current product and remove existing product from shelves. Unilever also wants the amount obtained by profits that Hampton Creek has accrued from the product as well as triple damages. With Unilever making up an estimated 60 percent of the global mayonnaise market share, according to Hampton Creek CEO Joshua Tetrick, this would be chump change for the food giant. For Hampton Creek, it would be crippling.
Unilever knows that in order to stay relevant, they have to change their offerings to meet the growing demand for sustainable and cruelty free products. For example, they’ve stated they are looking to “develop alternative options for current practices,” in regards to their continued use of eggs from suppliers that practice maceration (the live grinding up of male chicks in the egg production process), but give absolutely no timeline for this.
Response to the lawsuit has been positive … in favor of Hampton Creek, with television chef Andrew Zimmern starting a petition on Change.org to urge Unilever to focus its resources to those sustainability projects they’ve been jawing about instead of picking on the little guy. It currently has over 16,000 signatures and climbing.
With negative public response, hopefully Unilever will stiffen up their bottom lip a little and drop this nonsense. Better yet, maybe they’ll also get the message that innovating for a more sustainable world is something consumers clearly want.
Lead image source: Philly.com