With a bit of chemical wizardry, the Bill Gates-backed company Hampton Creek Foods has been able to achieve a vegan mayonnaise with a texture and flavor that is almost identical to the Hellmann's variety, but without relying on unborn chickens.
That's great, just don't call it "mayo."
At least, that's the gist of a strongly-worded "warning letter" that the FDA sent to Hampton Creek founder and CEO Joshua Tetrick. Earlier this month, the federal agency came down hard on the San Francisco-based company, which is also behind egg-free foods like Just Cookies and Just Cookie Dough.
The main ingredient in mayonnaise is eggs—lots of eggs. But Hampton Creek has devised a method of making a mayo-like spread by replacing eggs with Canadian yellow peas, which makes it more palatable to vegans, environmentalists, and people who want to cut down on calories.
Their website boasts of a product that makes your body feel good, with "less sodium and cholesterol, but still tastes the way you want, without ever having to break the bank," and urges consumers to question the very meaning of mayonnaise in the modern age:
"What would it look like if we started over? Mayo would be so much more than a condiment. Who would have thought you could save an entire bathtub of water all the while having the most coveted pasta salad recipe in town? Just Mayo means giving. Spread on."
Clearly, the FDA wasn't so contemplative in their interpretation of the word "mayo". Instead, they are forcing the Bay Area food company to adhere to the legal definition of mayonnaise which dates back to 1957:
"According to the standard of identity for mayonnaise, egg is a required ingredient (21 CFR 169.140(c)); however, based on the ingredient information on the labels, these products do not contain eggs. We also note that these products contain additional ingredients that are not permitted by the standard, such as modified food starch, pea protein, and beta-carotene, which may be used to impart color simulating egg yolk. Therefore, these products do not conform to the standard for mayonnaise."
The letter goes on to identify four "significant offenses" relating to false or inaccurate labelling. These include "cholesterol-free" claims on labelling which are not in accordance with federal regulation, the company's use of "a heart shaped symbol with a smiling face" to make health claims, and the misleading combination of the words "Just" and "Mayo" which reinforce the impression that the products are real mayonnaise by suggesting that they are "'all mayonnaise' or 'nothing but' mayonnaise."
But the crux of the decision revolved around whether or not a product can call itself "mayo" despite having no egg content. And the FDA was adamant in delivering its bureaucratic slapdown: "The use of the term "mayo" and the image of an egg may be misleading to consumers because it may lead them to believe that the products are the standardized food, mayonnaise, which must contain eggs."
Whether or not the FDA's ruling is a direct result of lobbying by Big Mayo is unclear, but their stern warning is definitely music to the ears of Hellmann's Mayonnaise manufacturer Unilever.
Unilever, whose annual revenue was to the tune of $62 billion last year, felt threatened enough by the three-year-old vegan upstart to take it to court over allegations false advertising last year. Hellmann's, a company which hasn't had much competition in the mayo market for the last few decades, ended up dropping the case, but their legal argument was basically the same as the FDA's—no eggs equals no mayo, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The federal agency has given the Hampton Creek 15 days to get its act together and prove that it will "correct the current violations and prevent their recurrence." The suit comes at a bad time for the company; just a few weeks ago, Business Insider ran an exposé about the brand, with claims of "shoddy science, or ignored science completely," labeling practices that lied about the products' contents, possible sex scandals, and "an uncomfortable and unsafe work environment."
In the meantime, the makers of Just Mayo will have to continue fighting a war on two fronts. First, against the big mayo companies, and second, against a meddling, egg-obsessed bureaucracy.