Battle looms over egg’s role in mayonnaise

Is mayo mayonnaise if it doesn’t contain eggs?

The food giant Unilever thinks not. And it is suing Hampton Creek, a start-up company making an eggless spread that tastes like mayonnaise, accusing it of false advertising and fraud.

Hampton Creek, whose investors include Bill Gates, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and prominent venture capitalists, replaces eggs with yellow peas in its spread, which is called Just Mayo.

In its lawsuit, Unilever contends that Just Mayo is denting sales of its popular mayonnaise products, known as Hellmann’s in the East and Best Foods west of the Rockies.

Just Mayo has rapidly won distribution in giant retail and grocery chains like Target and Wal-Mart, and Hampton recently began selling Just Cookies, an eggless, dairy-free cookie dough in four flavors.

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.

Unilever said Just Mayo lacked testing to back up the claim on its Facebook page that it beat Hellmann’s in a taste test.

And Unilever said that Just Mayo failed to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of mayonnaise as an emulsion of vegetable oil, an acid-like vinegar or lemon juice, and an ingredient containing egg yolks. Thus, Miracle Whip, made by Kraft Foods, calls itself a spread or salad dressing.

Unilever wants Hampton Creek, a private company that does not disclose its financial statements, to pay three times its profit in damages plus the legal fees of the plaintiff, a $60 billion company. It also is asking the court to require Hampton Creek to stop using the egg on its label; recall all products, ads and promotional materials that might confuse consumers; and stop claiming that Just Mayo is superior to Hellmann’s or Best Foods.

In an interview, Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s founder, said the lawsuit was symptomatic of a bigger problem in the food business.

“This is about something a whole lot larger than our advertising and speaks to the change we need in food production generally,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to solve the big problems like food’s impact on environment and health.”

He said he was surprised that Unilever, which is promoting a new sustainability program called Project Sunlight, was the company suing Hampton Creek.