Mayo it Peas the Court: Is Vegan Mayo False Advertising?

Blog Exclusive: I discovered a product today, one that I am now very curious about…because the company that makes it is being accused of deceiving the public with its product’s name and packaging. Oh, and because the company’s Facebook page and website really make you want to find out what is so great about this product.

I don’t think that’s quite the outcome the company's opponent, Unilever, was looking for.

Conopco Inc., doing business as Unilever, is suing Hampton Creek Inc. for false advertising and unfair competition based on the defendant’s “Just Mayo” product. According to the complaint, Just Mayo is a “plant-based vegan alternative to real mayonnaise,” but because it competes directly with Unilever’s product—known as Hellmann’s or Best Foods depending on what part of the country you’re in—Unilever wants Hampton Creek to stop the “consumer deception” of calling itself Just Mayo.

Unilever also objects to the product’s label, which depicts an egg-shaped silhouette with a pea shoot inside of it. The product does not contain eggs, but does contain pea protein.

(Full disclosure: having never grown peas myself, I did not recognize the little plant outline as a pea shoot. I got that from this New York Times article.)

In fact, I didn’t really see the egg shape at first, but now that I know about it, I can’t stop seeing it. According to the N.Y. Daily News, Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said that the label design “is their way of showing that they use plants instead of chicken eggs,” and that the label clearly indicates that the product is not made with eggs.

Just Mayo is a vegan product, but Hampton Creek seems to be trying to cater to a larger market, in that it does not advertise the product as vegan, just as “outrageously delicious, better for your body, for your wallet, and for the planet.” It also claims that Just Mayo beat Hellman’s in a taste test.

The complaint alleges that “[t]he Just Mayo false name is part of a larger campaign and pattern of unfair competition by Hampton Creek to falsely promote Just Mayo spread as tasting better than, and being superior to, Best Foods and Hellman’s mayonnaise.”  It explains that the FDA and the dictionary define mayonnaise (as well as “mayo”) as a product that must contain eggs.

“Because Just Mayo lacks the ingredients of a real mayonnaise, it separates into constituent parts when it is heated and does not bind the ingredients of [a heated] sauce together,” the complaint states.

The defendant is “seizing market share” from Hellman’s, the complaint continues. “The harm is impossible to quantify because of the difficulty of measuring lost good will and sales.” calls the lawsuit frivolous. “It’s the equivalent of the biggest bully in the school yard beating up the nerdiest kid,” Michele Simon writes. 

Personally, I agree that the name of the product is a little misleading, but it could be argued that any confusion would end upon closer inspection of the jar. More importantly, though, I want to try Just Mayo (or whatever it might be called in the future if Unilever is granted its injunction), and I’m sure I’m not the only one whose curiosity is piqued by this dispute. I want to know how many more people buy a jar this week compared to last week. This might not be the effect Unilever expected.

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