In a resounding victory for the future of food, the FDA announced Thursday that egg-free food startup Hampton Creek could keep the name “Just Mayo” for their plant-based mayonnaise.
This historic decision ends a year of contentious, divisive, and sometimes bizarre debate about what constitutes real mayo (does it need eggs or not?) argued by food advocates, culinarians, and the traditional egg industry at large. According to the FDA's standard definition, mayonnaise is a dressing made up of different oils, spices, and egg yolks - a definition that has stood strong for nearly 40 years. But Hampton Creek’s arrival on the food scene in 2012 introduced a whole different player – a mayonnaise product that looked, acted, and tasted just like conventional mayo, sans the chicken egg.
Just Mayo's eggless-ness didn’t seem to present a problem for consumers, who bought up Just Mayo in droves at national retail chains across the country, from Walmart, Kroger and Costco to Safeway, Target and Whole Foods, and even overseas. But Just Mayo's success soon attracted negative attention from the conventional mayonnaise industry, who resented the "mayo" label being attached to an egg-free product. As Just Mayo's sales grew, corporate food giant Unilever – maker of popular Hellman’s mayo - took legal action to try and stop Hampton Creek from calling their product such and sued the startup in November 2014.
The lawsuit – which demanded, among other things, all the profits produced by Just Mayo as well as removal of the “mayo” name – turned out to be a media boon for Hampton Creek. Once only a fledgling startup known mostly through slick online and social media campaigns, they rose to national prominence nearly overnight as the mass media relished in painting a narrative of the small "do-gooder" startup going toe-to-toe with Unilever's greedy corporate Goliath - and Hampton Creek was the decisive victor. After just one month, Unilever dropped their lawsuit following widespread denunciation and backlash from consumers.
Hampton Creek emerged from the drama and massive media coverage untouched and even stronger than before.
The egg-free food fight seemed settled until August this year, when the FDA issued an ominous-sounding letter to Hampton Creek (likely prompted by complaints within the egg industry) stating that their product in fact did not meet the government's standard definition for mayo, and warned them to change their product's name.
The fate of Hampton Creek’s first and most popular product, Just Mayo, seemed uncertain until this past Thursday, when CEO Josh Tetrick announced they had finally reached a deal with the FDA, and the agency agreed that plant-based mayo can be called "mayo" after all. The decision ended a protracted saga that thrust Hampton Creek and Tetrick into the fore of the good food movement, and shone a revealing light on some of the most secretive and deceptive tactics used by those in animal agribusiness.
The battle over Just Mayo may have well been the major fight of the better food movement against industrial food and corporate interests. Unilever’s lawsuit and the resulting controversy highlighted a number of important issues the emerging animal-free food economy will likely face including: What defines meat, milk and eggs if these products don't come directly from animals? Can these products be put in the same category as traditional animal-based foods? What, if any, are the public's concerns over the definitions of familiar food products?
These and many more questions are sure to appear more frequently as food innovators set sail into uncharted waters, and we move into a new, animal-free food economy.
And that is actually kind of exciting.