Big Tobacco, Big Oil — now Big Mayo?
That's what Josh Tetrick, founder and chief executive of Hampton Creek in San Francisco, feels like he faces in a lawsuit filed against his vegan startup by multinational food giant Unilever.
The $67.4 billion company says Tetrick's is engaging in false advertising by describing its Just Mayo sandwich spread as mayonnaise, even though it contains no eggs. Unilever's suit was filed Oct. 31 in federal court in Newark, N.J.
"Big Mayo strikes," said Tetrick, who believes his company is absolved of false advertising claims because his spread uses the colloquialism "mayo" and not "mayonnaise." U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for mayonnaise contain egg yolk.
Tetrick said Hampton Creek plans to countersue in the coming weeks, likely focusing on Unilever's sustainability practices.
Unilever is seeking compensation for lost profits and damages and demanding that Hampton Creek refrain from declaring Just Mayo superior in taste to Unilever's Best Foods and Hellman's brands of mayonnaise.
The British-Dutch company did not respond to a request for comment.
Just Mayo burst on to the health food scene last year with high-profile financial backing from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man.
Made with Canadian yellow peas, canola oil and lemon juice, Just Mayo is the first in a line of eggless products Hampton Creek is developing as an alternative to industrialized foods that depend on animal byproducts.
Tetrick said the Unilever lawsuit will be positive for Hampton Creek because it will draw attention to a food system he calls "antiquated."
Tetrick said his vegan mayo performs better than those made with eggs. The yellow peas help the spread stay emulsified longer and remain less watery, making it ideal for the food-service industry, he said.
The creamy condiment is sold at Whole Foods Market, Target, Vons and Costco, among other stores.
Tetrick said the egg industry also is no fan of his vegan spread. And he wonders when he'll draw opposition from cookie dough makers to Hampton Creek's vegan cookie dough.
"There might be Big Cookie soon," he said.