Eggless mayonnaise firm sued by Hellmann's maker over branding
When does mayonnaise stop being mayonnaise?
When the condiment contains no eggs, argues food giant Unilever.
The multinational firm, which manufactures Hellmann's and Best Foods mayonnaise, is suing a Californian business for selling a plant-based alternative called 'Just Mayo'.
Unilever claims the name is misleading, and that Just Mayo, which is sold in major supermarkets, is eating into its mayonnaise sales.
'Horse and buggy' definition
Hampton Creek, the company behind Just Mayo, has accused Unilever of using "horse and buggy era" definitions for identifying mayonnaise.
The controversy surrounds Just Mayo's labelling, which features an egg with a pea-shoot running through it. Unilever claims this suggests the product - which is made with canola oil, lemon juice and pea protein - contains eggs.
Hampton Creek's products are sold alongside egg-based mayonnaises at a wide range of US retailers, as well as Tesco in the UK, and the company has been growing rapidly, attracting funding from Bill Gates, Peter Thiel and other venture capital firms.
What constitutes mayonnaise?
The US Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the industry, considers mayonnaise to have some form of egg-yolk in its ingredients.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term to France in the early 1800s, and defines the condiment as a "thick, creamy sauce consisting of egg yolks emulsified with oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, vinegar, and (usually) mustard".
However several vegan alternatives have been on sale for years, although many of these market themselves as tasting like mayonnaise, rather than being the sauce itself.
Unilever says Just Mayo is deliberately misleading customers with its labelling.
"Hampton Creek's literally-false name and its unsubstantiated superiority claims have already caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever," the company wrote in its court filing.
It went on to accuse Hampton Creek of false advertising and unfair competition.
In a presentation responding to Unilever's lawsuit, Hampton Creek wrote:
"Building a food system for 2050 requires companies and governments to shatter existing paradigms created during the horse and buggy era.
"Antiquated thinking won't feed the world or strengthen the planet."
A petition in support of Hampton Creek, launched by celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, has already garnered more than 15,000 signatures.