The spat between the maker of Hellmann's mayonnaise and a startup making a plant-based mayo substitute is being whipped into a frenzy.
After suing California-based Hampton Creek for calling its product 'Just Mayo' because it has no eggs, Unilever, the food giant that owns Hellmann's, has changed its website to make clear that some of its own products are not actually mayonnaise, after being described that way.
The Food and Drug Administration’s official mayonnaise definition calls for vegetable oil, acidifying ingredients and “egg yolk-containing ingredients.” The suit accuses Hampton Creek of false advertising, with Unilever saying the word mayo implies that the product is mayonnaise.
Hampton Creek’s founder Josh Tetrick, wrote to Unilever on Nov. 4, through law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, pointing out that Unilever had used the words “mayo” and “mayonnaise” on products that did not meet FDA standards. But it wasn’t until Nov. 14 that Tetrick saw the new language.
“They [Unilever] specifically said they made the changes as soon as they were notified. But it wasn’t until Friday...conveniently after all of this global media attention began surfacing, that things were changed. We think that’s notable,” said Tetrick.
Among the changes is the addition of the word “dressing” to several products descriptions. For example, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise with Olive Oil is now Hellmann’s Mayonnaise Dressing with Olive Oil.
In addition, Tetrick says that some consumer product reviews on the Hellmann's site were also changed.
He points to one post that that previously read: “I could taste no difference in the olive oil mayonnaise…” written by user THATGUYSGIRL49. It now reads: “I could taste no difference in the olive oil mayonnaise dressing…”
Tetrick says that Unilever “has really put itself in a lonely corner” by showing that customers are just as confused with Hellmann's labeling.
Unilever says the changes were made in response to Hampton Creek's letter sent on Nov. 4.
“After Hampton Creek sent us a list of issues on our website, we made changes based on their recommendations." Mike Faherty, vice president of food for Unilever North America, told Fox News.com.
Faherty said that Unilever should've taken down the customer comments in question, rather than editing them. But he says the issue of website changes is just deflecting the bigger problem --Just Mayo's label. Fagherty says in addition to the name 'Just Mayo, Hampton Creek's logo—a pea shoot growing into an egg—is misleading.
“The FDA hasn’t raised any concerns with us but they’re [Hampton Creek] hiding the fact that its vegan.”
Faherty said that Unilever is open to settling the case through talks but has not heard from Hampton Creek. "They’ve done nothing so far,” he says.
For his part, Tetrick says he has reached out multiple times to Hellmann's asking them to drop the lawsuit but no one from the company has gotten back to him aside from the legal action.
"Unilever has been quoted several times saying that they've tried to talk to me but we've heard nothing from them [with the] exception of the lawsuit. They have my contact info they know how to reach me."
He says that Just Mayo's label clearly states that it egg-free and acknowledges that the FDA has been in contact, saying that they're undergoing “productive conversations.”
Vegan and dairy-free, Just Mayo, which has been on store shelves for 10 months, contains canola oil, water, lemon juice and pea protein among other plant-based ingredients. The Silicon Valley-backed Hampton Creek Foods aims to offer plant-based products that are more environmentally friendly, less expensive, and more humanely-produced those made with eggs.
Hellmann’s is worth $2 billion annually and has the largest share of the domestic mayonnaise market, according to Euromonitor.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.