Hampton Creek Takes on Unilever in Mayonnaise Battle

Brands cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

From time to time, a local merchant in these parts gets the threat of a lawsuit for naming themselves something they shouldn’t. It might be a Studio 54B, which would hear from Studio 54 and get what it deserved, or it might be a well known fellow named Amos who calls his new business the Famous Amos Bar and doesn’t understand when he gets a letter. Other threats of lawsuits don’t seem so obvious.

The most recent of these took place about five years ago when a woman who ran a successful catering business called Four Seasons Caterer bought the former John Ducks restaurant in Southampton and made it into a catering hall. She got a letter from the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. They had this “valuable trademark right” from the federal government and said Jean Mackenzie would have to change the name. The trademark right was for that name as it applied to restaurants, and this was just too close, they said.

Jean fretted for a while. Her catering business had a great reputation. She considered changing the name of her business to MacKenzie’s, but finally settled on “Seasons” by itself, which it is today. There may be four of them, and there may be a hotel chain and a piece of classical music mentioning all four, but Seasons has stuck and her place continues as a popular location for weddings, etc.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read that the giant food company Unilever had filed a lawsuit against the company Hampton Creek for calling its mayonnaise-like spread Just Mayo. Unilever’s argument was that they owned Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise, and Hampton Creek’s product “Just Mayo” should be prevented from using the word “mayo” because, in fact, a product called “mayonnaise” has to contain a certain percentage of eggs and oil as per the 1957 US Food and Drug Administration standard, and Hampton Creek’s product does not. And, as the Unilever lawsuit points out, people associate “mayo” with “mayonnaise,” and they associate “mayonnaise” with “Hellmann’s.”

Furthermore, the label of “Just Mayo” has a drawing on it of a pea from a pea-shooter cracking an egg. That could lead people to think that the product contained eggs, Unilever argues. It doesn’t contain eggs. It contains Canadian yellow peas.

It may have seemed odd to some that the giant maker of a mayonnaise would raise this issue about a tiny competitor, rather than just ask the government to do it, but there it is.

They had not counted on the likes of Hampton Creek founder Josh Tetrick, however.

Tetrick wondered if Unilever sold products using the word “mayonnaise” that did not have eggs or the required percentage of oil. It was easy to find out. All he had to do was Google “Unilever” and “mayonnaise.”

He found plenty and apparently Unilever did, too. And then, a few days later, while he was on the phone with a public health blogger and lawyer, Michele Simon, a strange thing happened.

“It was kind of freaky,” Ms. Simon told The New York Times. “I was on the phone with Josh and he was reading something from Hellmann’s website to me—and then it just vanished.”

Unilever was one-by-one changing names, posts, advertising and commentary of their products, such as Hellmann’s Canola Cholesterol-Free Mayonnaise, which were in violation of the FDA standard. In some of them they changed “Mayonnaise” to “Mayonnaise Dressing,” because the phrase “Mayonnaise Dressing” is not covered as one of the things that has to have an egg and a certain percentage of oil in it. They even changed quotes from happy consumers.

“I could taste no difference in the olive oil mayonnaise and I will continue…” became, the Times reported, “I could taste no difference in the olive oil mayonnaise dressing and I will continue…”


Here is a comment about this from Mike Faherty, VP for Foods at Unilever North America.

“Contrast our actions over the last week and Hampton Creek’s,” he said. “They’ve known about their misleading labels for months and done nothing, but the minute we found out there was something misleading on our pages, we took action.”

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