Nolan Hudalla, MJSLT Staffer
In August 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning letter to Hampton Creek Foods, the makers of the popular vegan mayonnaise substitute “Just Mayo.” This letter informed the company that its product had a misleading name and label imagery, because, by FDA regulation, mayonnaise must contain one or more eggs. This opinion by the FDA was in response to a high-profile lawsuit brought against Hampton Creek by Unilever (the makers of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise) and a similar class action filed in Florida state court, both alleging violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and unjust enrichment. But, in an era of healthier alternatives – a world of Whole Foods, Thanksgiving Tofurky, and even eggless mayo – is the FDA missing the point? Instead of relying on food recipes enshrined in agency regulations from the 1970’s to identify whether an eggless substitute is mayonnaise or not, maybe the FDA needs to modernize its definitions instead.
In an effort to demonstrate just how committed the government is to keeping Just Mayo from poaching the traditional mayo market, consider the American Egg Board’s (AEB) response to Just Mayo. The AEB, a group appointed by the US Department of Agriculture, may have used public funds to conspire against Just Mayo. According to a Guardian article, “the government-backed egg lobby had organized a concerted effort to tackle Hampton Creek, a company described in leaked emails as a ‘major threat’ and ‘crisis’ for the $5.5bn-a-year egg industry.” This investigation led to the resignation of the AEB’s CEO Joanne Ivy. In addition, the FDA sent Just Mayo its warning letter despite an enormous show of popular support against the agency’s policy. Over 112,000 petitioners scrambled to sign a petition started by Food Network star Andrew Zimmern entitled “Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies,” to Unilever Chairman Michael Treschow. This public uprising boiled to the point that Unilever voluntarily dropped its initial lawsuit within two days of filing.
Even if the Florida state court suit amounts to nothing, this issue will not be over easy for the FDA. As demonstrated by the petition, consumer preferences are changing, and not just for mayonnaise. Similar battles are being fought over peanut butter, milk, yogurt, and ice cream. Retail sales of vegan products rose by over 6% last year, and 36% of U.S. consumers use milk or meat alternatives. This raises the question of whether it is really worth all of the government’s money and effort to maintain 1970’s ideas of food. Instead of deviling these modern alternatives, maybe the FDA should buy in too. After all, it’s just mayo.