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Vegan mayonnaise maker sued by food giant Unilever

Vegan mayonnaise maker sued by food giant Unilever
Hampton Creek has edged into the $12-billion global mayonnaise market with a spread made without eggs. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Big Tobacco, Big Oil, now Big Mayo?

That's what Josh Tetrick, founder and chief executive of Hampton Creek in San Francisco, feels like he's facing in a lawsuit filed against his vegan start-up by multinational food giant Unilever.

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FOR THE RECORD
Nov. 10, 1:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick's last name as Petrick.
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The $67.4-billion company says Tetrick's firm is engaging in false advertising by describing its Just Mayo sandwich spread as mayonnaise, even though it contains no eggs.

"Big Mayo strikes," said Tetrick, who believes his company is absolved of false advertising claims because his spread uses the colloquialism "mayo" and not "mayonnaise." U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for mayonnaise contain egg yolk.

Tetrick said Hampton Creek plans to file a countersuit in the coming weeks that would likely focus on Unilever’s sustainability practices. 

Unilever is seeking compensation for lost profits and damages and demanding that Hampton Creek refrain from declaring Just Mayo superior in taste to Unilever's Best Foods and Hellman's brands of mayonnaise.

"We brought this lawsuit because use of the Just Mayo name blatantly misleads consumers," a Unilever spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.  "In fact, the product is Just NOT Mayo as it does not contain one of mayonnaise's key ingredients -- eggs -- in violation of the federal regulations that are in place to protect consumers."

The British-Dutch company filed its lawsuit Oct. 31 in federal court in Newark, N.J.

Just Mayo burst onto the health food scene last year with high-profile financial backing from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest tycoon.

Made with Canadian yellow peas, canola oil and lemon juice, Just Mayo is the first in a line of egg-less products Hampton Creek is developing as an alternative to industrialized foods that depend on animal byproducts.

Tetrick said the Unilever lawsuit will be positive for Hampton Creek because it will draw attention to a food system he calls "antiquated."

An online petition in support of Hampton Creek led by food television personality Andrew Zimmern garnered 10,000 signatures by Monday afternoon.

Tetrick said his vegan mayo performs better than those made with eggs. The yellow peas help the spread stay emulsified longer and remain less watery, making it ideal for the food service industry, he said.

The creamy condiment is sold at Whole Foods Market, Target, Vons and Costco, among other stores.

Tetrick said the egg industry also is no fan of his vegan spread. And he wonders when he'll draw opposition from cookie dough makers to Hampton Creek's vegan cookie dough.

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"There might be Big Cookie soon," he said.

Follow @dhpierson on Twitter for food industry news.

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