This is the story of a socially conscious start-up that took on the forces of Big Food and won.
Or it’s the story of an upstart tech company that tried to pull a fast one on consumers and got away with it, upending years of tradition in the process.
How you read it might depend on how you like your BLT — or indeed, if you eat BLTs. But either way, it’s got all the makings of an epic drama — lawsuits, lab experiments, accusations of a government conspiracy, secret emails, empty threats, allusions to the Brooklyn mob, a promise of a food revolution and an alleged attempt to mislead the public — with the fate of America’s favorite condiment hanging in the balance.
This is the story of how a vegan spread that is not in fact mayonnaise (at least, not according to the government’s surprisingly specific definition) fought for over a year to be able to label itself mayo.
And on Thursday, the makers of the product got their wish: Hampton Creek, the San Francisco-based start-up that produces “Just Mayo,” will be allowed to keep the name so long as it makes modifications to the product’s label clarifying that it doesn’t contain eggs.
This comes after the teeny tech company was threatened with a lawsuit by the world’s largest condiment company (which was later dropped), talked about (not very nicely) in secret emails exchanged by lobbyists for Big Egg that were exposed by a Freedom of Information Act request and resulted in a CEO’s early retirement and, on top of that, was issued a warning by the Food and Drug Administration.
It started decades ago, in a tiny room in Birmingham, Alabama.
That’s where Joshua Tetrick lived with his father and brother, sleeping on cots, he told USA Today. The family lived on food stamps, he said, and they ate poorly.
“My dad didn’t give a f—k what he was eating. It was all sh—y, sh—y food and I realized there were people eating like that all over the world,” Tetrick told the Guardian.
As an adult, Tetrick spent several years working in Africa, then moved back to the U.S. hoping to find a way to “use capitalism for good,” as he likes to say. He just needed to figure out the right way to do it.
His answer? Fix the food industry. Starting with eggs.
“If one looks at the food system with clear eyes and says, ‘Alright, what’s going on?’ we would say that it uses too much energy, it uses too much water, it uses too much land,” he told WBUR this fall. “And one of the things is the use of chicken eggs.”
Eggs, he argued, are bad for the environment, bad for human health, bad for animal welfare and bad for global hunger (there’s some debate about these claims, but more on that later). So why not replace them with something cheaper, more sustainable and just as good if not better?
In 2011 Tetrick set up a lab in a start-up heavy industrial neighborhood of San Francisco, hired a bunch of chemists, and put them to work coming up with a plant-based substitute for eggs that is both indistinguishable from and less expensive than the real thing. Their solution was a powder made from Canadian yellow peas, which mimics egg yolks’ emulsifying abilities, minus the cholesterol and chicken coops. Egg substitutes would form the foundation of Hampton Creek’s business — the company now sells egg-less “Just Cookies” and “Just Cookie Dough” in addition to four varieties of vegan mayo.
Tetrick doesn’t try to broadcast that fact, though. The original Just Mayo label featured the name in big letters and a large image of an egg with a pea shoot growing in it. “Egg-free” was featured in relatively small font alongside the product’s other health-food bonafides (soy-free, gluten-free, cholesterol-free, kosher) and “vegan” was nowhere to be seen.
“We don’t market our product to tree-hugging liberals in San Francisco,” Tetrick told The Post in 2014. “… We built the company to try to really penetrate the places where better-for-you food hasn’t gone before.”
Though Just Mayo started out on the shelves of places that catered to the tree-hugging San Francisco crowd, it soon spread beyond that. Now it can be found at Costco, Safeway, Walmart,
Oh, and about that “Just” in the names — it doesn’t mean “exactly” or “only.” It’s “just” as in, “guided by reason, justice or fairness,” as explained on the product’s label. This is moral mayo, Tetrick argues in a soaring manifesto on Hampton Creek’s website, spoken in somber tones and set to a stirring soundtrack. This mayo that will “fundamentally change the world.”
It’s a bold claim, but it’s attracted a lot of attention since Tetrick began manufacturing Just Mayo in 2013. Bill Gates has backed the company, as has Peter Thiel of PayPal. Plant-based substitutes are part of the “future of food,” Gates wrote on his website in 2013, “By 2050, the world’s population will grow to more than 9 billion and our appetite for meat will grow along with it. … That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.”
But Tetrick also drew attention from the people he’s hoping to supplant: traditional mayonnaise makers.
In October 2014, Unilever, which manufactures Hellmann’s Mayonnaise (America’s No. 1 condiment, according to Bloomberg), sued Hampton Foods for false advertising and unfair competition.
“The Just Mayo false name is 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 (the name for Hellmann’s west of the Rockies) and Hellmann’s mayonnaise,” the suit read. “… Hampton Creek’s literally-false name and its unsubstantiated superiority claims have already caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever and to the product category the industry has taken great care to define in a way consistent with consumer expectations.”
It was an unusually defensive attitude for the world’s largest producer of food spreads (including one called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”), which makes more than $64 billion a year to Hampton Creek’s measly $50-or-so million.
“It’s not about using the (mayo) word,” Michele Simon, a public health attorney who wrote about the suit, told The Post last year. “It’s about the fact that this company is taking market share away. And now it’s like they’ve awakened the giant.”
From Unilever’s perspective, the case was pretty clear cut: The FDA has an incredibly specific (and incredibly unappetizing) definition of what qualifies as mayonnaise: “the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and one or more of the egg yolk-containing ingredients specified in paragraph (c) of this section.”
Just Mayo may be an emulsified semisolid food containing vegetable oil and an acidifying ingredient, but it does not contain egg yolk. Therefore, it was not real mayonnaise and its label, with its all-caps “MAYO” and large imagery of an egg, was misleading. Wasn’t it?
Unfortunately for Unilever, the suit backfired, generating a huge amount of publicity for Hampton Creek and outrage from Just Mayo fans, who filed a Change.org petition urging Unilever to “stop bullying sustainable food companies.” Hampton Creek was less than subtle about encouraging the”Big Food” versus “tiny challenger” framework in an image posted to its Facebook page of a David-like Just Mayo jar throwing a rock at Hellmann’s Goliath. (The image was later deleted)
“Nobody likes to see the big conglomerate multinational company, with all of the money and all of the lawyers, beat down the little man,” brand-building expert Eloy Trevino told NPR.
Ultimately, Unilever dropped the suit.
But that wasn’t the end of the controversies for Just Mayo. In August, the FDA sent Hampton Creek a warning letter saying that Just Mayo’s name and labeling may be misleading to consumers who believe they are actually buying mayonnaise. In addition, the “Nutrition Facts” section of the label was problematic and some of the health claims on the bottles were untrue.
“The marketing really does beg a lot of questions,” Ivan Wasserman, an attorney at Manatt Phelps & Phillips who advises companies on food labeling, told The Post at the time. “There’s the imagery of the egg, and the lack of other indicators. A product with that name should probably inform customers of what the product is and what it is not in other ways.”
It’s true that not all of Tetrick’s claims about the benefits of Just Mayo pan out. Even though the product contains no cholesterol from eggs, it is not exactly “health food” — mayonnaise of any variety is more than 50 percent oil. The company’s website also doesn’t offer anything to back up the claim the Just Mayo production process is more environmentally-friendly than that of traditional mayonnaise.
But Just Mayo is cheaper than traditional mayonnaise — it cost $3.48 at Walmart to Hellmann’s $5.25. And the egg industry has struggled with bad press over salmonella cases and mistreatment of chickens inside battery cages at egg production facilities.
As Hampton Creek was dealing with the FDA warning, it was revealed that officials at the American Egg Board — a marketing organization funded by the egg industry but overseen by the Department of Agriculture — had tried to coordinate a public relations effort to bring down Hampton Creek. The board’s mandate is specifically to promote demand for eggs and egg products, Simon wrote on her blog. Groups like it are barred from lobbying and attempts to influence government action and are not allowed to produce advertising “deemed disparaging to another commodity or competitor.”
The revelations about the Egg Board came from emails exchanged by AEB officials, other industry members and PR consultants and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by FOIA expert Ryan Shapiro.
In one email, the AEB President Joanne Ivy wrote to the board’s public relations consultants at Edelman, “It would be a good idea if Edelman looked at this product as a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.” In others, she and an external contractor also discuss calling Whole Foods and asking the retailer to keep Just Mayo off the shelves. The head of the Egg Nutrition Center, an AEB wing, suggests he could “contact [his] old buddies in Brooklyn to pay Mr. Tetrick a visit.”
The emails detail exchanges between AEB members and USDA staff asking how they might file a complaint to the FDA about Just Mayo’s labeling. They also reveal a program to pay food bloggers to write about the affordability and health benefits of eggs.
The AEB’s actions were roundly criticized by food writers — one article called it evidence of a “U.S. government conspiracy against vegan mayo.”
In the end, it appears, the alleged “government conspiracy” didn’t pan out. Hampton Creek met with FDA officials over the past few months to come up with a way to make its labels clearer but keep its name and logo, according to the Associated Press. The new version enlarges the font for the list of attributes that includes “egg-free” and shrinks its egg-and-pea-shoot logo. It also defines its interpretation of “just” to clarify that it means “fair” rather than “simply.”
Tetrick said Hampton Foods is pleased with the outcome. The label dispute wasn’t about winning or losing, he told the AP, but working together to create a “just food system.”
Which is exactly the kind of thing you only say if you won.