Commentary

Telling Hampton Creek To 'Hold The Mayo,' Hellmann's Finds Itself Squeezed

The AP’s Candice Choi neatly wrapped up the new ingredient in the Goliath vs. David story of Unilever suing startup Hampton Creek for false advertising over what it says is a misleading suggestion that it contains eggs: “Hellmann's mayonnaise has some egg on its face.”

According to Choi’s widely distributed account, even as public health attorney and blogger Michele Simon was conversing with Hampton Creek founder John Tetrick about the case on the phone last Friday, “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,” Choi pounts out. “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.”

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Faherty and a spokeswoman offered other explanations for additional changes to the site and elsewhere online but the main effect was to give the story new impetus, which Tetrus gleefully acknowledges in Choi’s kicker. He points out that “many millions of people” have learned about his product over the past 10 days thanks to the exposure.

Unilever filed its suit against Hampton Creek in U.S. District Count in New Jersey on Oct. 31. Hampton Creek, which initially was distributed in Whole Food, is now being sold in more mainstream Walmart, Target and Dollar Tree stores. 

“The consumer-products giant is demanding Hampton Creek change the label of its Just Mayo product, and is seeking compensation for unspecified damages,” against Hampton Creek, the Wall Street Journal’s Annie Gasparro reported on Nov. 10.

“Just Mayo’s label features a white egg cracked by a pea shoot, which Unilever contends violates federal law governing trademarks and advertising claims by giving consumers the false impression that the product contains eggs,” as the New York Times’ Stephanie Strom revealed last week. But Hampton Creek has retained the powerful law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner and is collecting information for a countersuit, Strom reports in a piece filed nline yesterday.

“On Nov. 4, the company wrote to Unilever pointing out that it had used the word ‘mayo’ to describe products that do not meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of mayonnaise, which includes eggs and a certain percentage of oil,” Strom writes.

“We’ve been going back and forth with them because the simple fact that this has happened speaks to the larger issue, which is we need for our regulatory framework to be more into line with the way we hope people are starting to eat,” said Tetrick tells Strom.

Meanwhile, an “informal taste test” among 10 staffers in the Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau that pitted Just Mayo against Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise and Kraft Real Mayo “suggests Unilever’s angst may be misplaced,” reports the WSJ’s Gasparro. 

“Just Mayo got no votes for best tasting, and most of the participants could tell it was the eggless imposter, even without seeing the label,” Gasparro writes. “Hellmann’s has been around for more than a century…. But our taste-testers thought it was too runny and preferred the slightly tangier version by Kraft for best taste.”

Tangy or vintage, the overall appeal of the “Real” condiment has been thinning.

“The mayonnaise business faces real challenges. Data from Euromonitor International show Hellmann’s and Best Foods’ dollar sales in the U.S. both dropped in 2013, and the researcher expects them to fall again this year,” points outBloomberg Businessweek’s Venessa Wong.

“[Unilever’s] legal complaint blames Just Mayo for stealing market share. ‘As Hampton Creek’s distribution and advertising increases,’ the filing warns, ‘the irreparable harm to Unilever will continue and worsen.’”

“Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies,” a Change.org petition that accuses Unilever of “using inhumane, unsustainable, and unhealthy ingredients” in its own products while “flex[ing] its muscles to prevent a good-for-the-world startup company from succeeding,” has nearly 39,000 signatures towards its goal of 50,000 as of this morning and has been credited with sparking the news coverage. 

“Since I started this petition, it's been mentioned in Time, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and so many other media outlets,” Andrew Zimmern wrote in an update yesterday. “The story of Unilever's silly lawsuit against Hampton Creek is everywhere. Consumers love Just Mayo more than ever — including many who would never have tried this product if not for the frivolous lawsuit.”

Meanwhile, over at Unilever, corporate communications is dealing with “damned if you sue” even as its attorney’s make the case for “harmed if you don’t.”

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