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Trade group egged on FDA to act against vegan mayo

Just Mayo spreads are shown in 2015. The eggless spread's label has since been tweaked.

Just Mayo spreads are shown in 2015. The eggless spread’s label has since been tweaked.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Mayonnaise impostors, beware: An industry group is patrolling the grocery aisles.

The Assn. for Dressings and Sauces, founded in 1926, repeatedly urged federal regulators last year to take action against an upstart vegan spread that it said was masquerading as mayonnaise, emails show.

The Food and Drug Administration later issued a public warning to Hampton Creek Foods Inc. about its eggless Just Mayo spread, which triggered national headlines and ultimately led the San Francisco start-up and media darling to tweak its label.

The efforts provide a glimpse into the influence that industry groups can wield behind the scenes. The American Pizza Community, for instance, represents the interests of companies such as Domino’s Pizza Inc. The National Confectioners Assn. promotes candy’s fun image on behalf of members such as Hershey Co.

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On its website, the Assn. for Dressings and Sauces says it has a 16-member board and a Horseradish Information Council. The group doesn’t list a physical address and is managed by Kellen Co., a firm that manages industry associations.

According to emails obtained through a freedom of information request, the association first reached out to the FDA just months before a high-profile spat erupted between one of its members, a heavyweight mayonnaise maker, and Hampton Creek.

Unilever, the parent company of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, had sued Hampton Creek in late 2014, alleging false advertising. It said Just Mayo was not really mayonnaise because the spread contains no eggs.

After facing a backlash from Just Mayo supporters, Unilever dropped the suit.

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A couple months later, the Assn. for Dressings and Sauces contacted the FDA to follow up on its concern that Just Mayo was violating the federal standard for mayonnaise. The FDA had already contacted Hampton Creek after the group’s previous complaint, but said it couldn’t provide details.

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In a statement, the Assn. for Dressings and Sauces said one of its goals is to uphold federal standards in the dressings and sauces industry, which were established to protect consumers. It said it monitors product labels for accuracy as part of its goals.

A Unilever representative declined to comment. A representative for the FDA said the agency had nothing to add.

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Emails show that after Unilever dropped its lawsuit, the association persisted in its campaign to bring law and order to the condiments aisle and contacted the FDA at least three more times.

Then in August, the FDA made its issues with Hampton Creek public in a warning letter to the company.

Showing its own backroom muscle, Hampton Creek retained a lawyer who formerly worked at the FDA to help resolve the matter. Just Mayo’s label was adjusted to make clear it does not have eggs. But the spread got to keep its name, and it may have even gained a fan.

“After listening to your story, I may just up your sales by one jar during my next Costco visit and give your mayo alternative a test drive,” an FDA official wrote to the company.

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In a statement, Hampton Creek said its resolution with the FDA reaffirmed its belief that government and private sector can work together.

And in February, Unilever introduced its own eggless spread under the Hellmann’s banner and gave it an appropriate name: Carefully Crafted Dressing & Sandwich Spread.

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