Just Mayo will remain “Just Mayo” under a new ruling by the US Food & Drug Administration, which takes liberties with the agency’s own definition of the condiment and results in a victory of sorts for a renowned better-for-you startup against the forces of Big Food.
Hampton Creek, the maker of plant-based egg substitutes that it uses in Just Mayo, can continue to use the name for its eggless spread that has come under attack from Unilever, the biggest maker of mayonnaise, and from the trade association for egg producers. They didn’t like the fact that Just Mayo implied the product is mayonnaise even though a federal standard in effect for decades specifies that mayonnaise must contain eggs.
In a compromise, the FDA now has allowed Hampton Creek to keep the name, and even its logo depicting an egg being cracked by a young pea plant, but changes its label significantly. The company will use bigger type on the front of the label for the list of product attributes such as “egg-free” (which also includes …).
And the label will define the word “just” in the brand name to mean “guided by reason, justice and fairness” instead of implying that it’s an exact replica of mayonnaise and nothing else.
“This gives us the chance to tell the bigger story about what we’re trying to accomplish with Hampton Creek in terms of changing the food system,” Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO of Hampton Creek, told the New York Times. “I’m really positive about this outcome.” He went on to praise his finding that the FDA is actually made up of “a building with people inside, human beings who are thoughtful and engaging and really seemed to be trying to hear us out.”
From Tetrick’s view, the FDA is only conceding to his dream of building a giant new age food company that indeed is much more than Just Mayo. His business model is to develop new plant-based products to replace legacy products of the livestock age, starting with eggs. Eggs, he has said, are bad for the environment, human health, animal welfare and global hunger.
Hampton Creek also makes Just Cookies and other products, and while it started at Whole Foods Markets, over the past couple of years it has spread to Target and Walmart.
Another part of Hampton Creek’s notoriety is based on its billionaire backers, which include Bill Gates and PayPal’s Peter Thiel, and the company’s residence in Silicon Valley.
But Unilever has a different view of Hampton Creek’s business model. Based on Just Mayo’s clear violation of the FDA standards by which Unilever’s mayonnaise brands—Best Foods and Hellmann’s—clearly abide, the company in 2014 sued Hampton Creek for false advertising and unfair competition.
But Tetrick was able to muster up socially conscious indignation at the prospect of such a huge Big Food company picking on an innocent little startup—including an image that Hampton Creek had on its Facebook page for a while of a David-like Just Mayo throwing a rock at Hellmann’s Goliath. Unilever eventually withdrew the suit but not much later, the FDA came after Just Mayo on the same grounds.
Now all seems right between Hampton Creek and regulators. But that doesn’t mean everything is as smooth as spread for the company. Hampton Creek laid off about one-quarter of its workforce earlier this year, even after getting a $90 million round of new investment funding, and abruptly lost it chief strategy officer.
And Just Mayo’s skeptics still point out that the “healthy” product, while not based on animal fats or proteins, remains more than 50 percent oil. Also, noted the Washington Post, the company’s website doesn’t offer anything to back up the claim that the Just Mayo production process is more environmentally friendly than that of traditional mayonnaise.
One more thing: While Tetrick has been criticizing the practices of the egg industry and its impact on the environment, the nutritional qualifications of the egg have been enjoying a renaissance. The US government this year finally backtracked officially on decades of officially supported skepticism about dietary cholesterol, which is very prominent in eggs, and said that it doesn’t hurt anyone’s diet.