NEW YORK » Hellmann’s mayonnaise has some egg on its face.
After suing a small California company for calling its eggless product "Just Mayo," Hellman’s maker Unilever tweaked references on its websites to products that aren’t exactly mayonnaise either.
Unilever’s suit accuses Hampton Creek, the maker of Just Mayo, of false advertising because its product has no eggs and therefore doesn’t meet the definition for mayonnaise. The suit says the word mayo implies the product is mayonnaise, and that Just Mayo is "stealing market share from Hellmann’s."
Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, said she was discussing the case with Hampton Creek’s founder this Friday when they noticed customer reviews on Unilever’s websites for Hellmann’s and Best Foods were being changed to describe some products as "mayonnaise dressing" rather than "mayonnaise."
The Unilever products in question do not have enough vegetable oil to qualify as mayonnaise.
"They were changing right before our eyes," Simon said.
Mike Faherty, vice president of foods for Unilever North America, said the company decided to make the changes after the issues were raised in a letter from Hampton Creek on Nov. 4. In retrospect, Faherty said Unilever should’ve taken down the customer comments in question, rather than editing them.
The page for the company’s balsamic mayonnaise dressing was taken down because the product was discontinued, he said.
The sites had also been changed several months ago to rename "Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise" as "Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise Dressing." Faherty said the company didn’t have to add the word "dressing" since the "cholesterol free" modifier already signals to people the product is not mayonnaise. He said Unilever decided to "provide even more of a qualifier than we need to."
A Unilever representative, Anita Larsen, later clarified that the company added the word "dressing" to "Canola Cholesterol Free Mayonnaise" to prepare for an upcoming reformulation of the product. She did not have details on what the changes would entail.
Faherty said Unilever’s website changes were a "side issue" to the real problem — Just Mayo’s labeling. In addition to the name, Faherty called out the image of a giant egg with a pea shoot inside it on Just Mayo’s jars, which he said makes people think there’s egg in the product.
"My mom and your mom are shopping for Thanksgiving right now, and there’s a false label in the mayonnaise category," Faherty said. "Their label right now should be ‘Just Not Mayo’."
He said Unilever, based in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, is open to settling the matter through talks, but that the company hasn’t heard back from Hampton Creek.
Josh Tetrick, founder Hampton Creek, said he is open to talks with Unilever and has been in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration over the situation. He said he’s confident Just Mayo won’t have to change its name since the FDA’s standard of identity is for "mayonnaise" and not "mayo." That’s why Hampton Creek called its product "Just Mayo" to begin with, he said.
The label for Just Mayo also states the product is egg-free, Tetrick said.
Tetrick founded Hampton Creek to make foods that use plant proteins instead of eggs so that they’re healthier and better for the environment. The company also sells a cookie that is made without eggs, and is developing other products, such as pasta.
Tetrick said Unilever’s lawsuit has resulted in enormous publicity for Hampton Creek, which is based in San Francisco. A petition on Change.org asking Unilever to "stop bullying sustainable food companies" had more than 38,000 supporters on Monday afternoon.
"What a thrill the last 10 days have been," Tetrick said. "I don’t know how many millions of people now know the name Hampton Creek and know what Just Mayo is."