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The Argument Over What Is Mayonnaise Goes To Court

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Dec 4, 2014 8:00PM

Just Mayo is more than an eggless alternative to the staple condiment. It’s a threat to big food’s market dominance. Unilever, the industry titan behind Hellman’s, is suing San Francisco start-up Hampton Creek for misleading branding as well as claims that the vegan Just Mayo trumps Hellman’s in a taste test. Unilever not only wants Just Mayo to change its name but to pull its jars from store shelves while paying Unilever damages totaling three times its profits.

The suit neatly encapsulates the cost of the public’s growing receptivity to plant-based proteins cannily replicating old dairy and meat standbys, and Hampton Creek's fellow innovators are watching to see whether the courts will put the waking giant back to bed again. Americans consume $2 billion worth of mayonnaise each year with no sign of slowing down, so far more than chump change is at stake here.

In the world of big food, products like Just Mayo constitute veritable guerrilla warfare. Unilever lawyers claim Just Mayo has damaged the industry as a whole—and stolen hefty market shares—by infiltrating mainstream outlets like Costco and Walmart rather than sticking to health stores on the hippie fringe. Unilever, for the record, pocketed more than $65 billion last year selling household names including “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” in addition to its bona fide mayo.

The suit's verdict will pivot on the definition of the country’s favorite sandwich garnish. Unilever maintains that Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo is not “exactly, precisely, only and simply mayonnaise,” which in 1957 the Food and Drug Administration specified must contain egg yolk, among other traditional ingredients. Meanwhile Just Mayo is capitalizing on the attention the suit has garnered, casting itself as the sustainable hero.

Celebrity chefs like Andrew Zimmern have sponsored a petition titled “Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies,” now with more than 11,000 supporters. Bill Gates has also lent his public support to the vegan entrepreneur, not only for its eggless mayonnaise but also its chickenless eggs as part of his global investment in sustainable food. If we’re to feed the looming population into the foreseeable future, Gates and endless others agree, we've got to feed our appetite for meat and dairy with meatless and dairyless substitutes.