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Food Trends

Hellmann's owner sues over rival's use of 'Mayo'

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The maker of Hellman's is suing a California company that uses the word "Mayo" in its sandwich spread name, saying that federal regulators and dictionaries define mayonnaise as a spread that contains eggs. (AP/ Hampton Creek)

You have to break some eggs to make an omelet and, according to a lawsuit from the maker of Hellmann's, the same goes for mayonnaise.

The food company Unilever is suing a California company that uses the word "Mayo" in its sandwich spread name, saying that federal regulators and dictionaries define mayonnaise as a spread that contains eggs.

The suit claims false advertising by the company Hampton Creek for labeling its plant-based product "Just Mayo." Unilever says in a complaint filed in federal court that the word mayo implies that the product is mayonnaise, and Just Mayo is "stealing market share from Hellmann's"

"Consumers and cooks have an expectation that mayonnaise should both taste and perform like mayonnaise. Just Mayo does neither," the complaint states, noting that Just Mayo's oils separate when heated.

Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said his company isn't trying to mislead consumers. It is focused on using plants to help make everyday food products better.

"Today it's mayo, tomorrow it's a cookie ... next year it will be pasta," he said. "Maybe we'll see big cookie and big pasta lawsuits against us next."

"We just want to think intelligently and more future-oriented on how we actually feed people."

Tetrick noted that Just Mayo's label states that it is an egg-free product. The label also features a white egg with a plant growing in front, which the CEO said is their way of showing that they use plants instead of chicken eggs.

Unilever, which also sells the Best Foods brand, holds the biggest share of the U.S. mayonnaise market, estimated to be worth $2 billion annually, according to market-research firm Euromonitor. That's more than twice the size of the ketchup market.

A marketing professor hired by Unilever to survey consumers found in an online survey that more than half thought Just Mayo was mayonnaise when they saw the label. The professor said in a document filed last week in the court case that 822 consumers participated in the research.

Just Mayo reached store shelves earlier this year as the first product from Hampton Creek, a San Francisco-based startup that touts the backing of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing, Asia's wealthiest person. The spread is available at Dollar Tree, Whole Foods and Kroger stores, among other locations.

Hellmann's celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. Mayonnaise originated in France in the 1700s, when a chef seeking to make a creamy sauce combined oil and egg yolks.