Unilever is a massive corporation that makes a bunch of junk you’ve probably heard of. They’re most famous for being the owner of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, a product which features something called ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (a preservative that they abbreviate as EDTA, so as not to terrify you too much if you happen to read the ingredients label.) Very wholesome.
Unilever also owns Lipton tea, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Q-tips and Axe body spray (they sound just like my ex-roommate). As if owning Axe body spray isn’t enough of a stain on society and Ed Hardy shirts everywhere, the company is also responsible for acquiring natural body care brand St. Ives in 2010, and then apparently forcing them to start testing their products on animals.
Their latest claim to fame is suing Hampton Creek, a socially responsible startup company that’s trying to make products that are healthier for people, animals and the planet. You know—the kind of products that probably don’t have ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid in them to prevent the egg ingredients from going rancid.
Indeed, there are no eggs in Hampton Creek’s “Just Mayo.” And that’s why Unilever is suing them. Just Mayo doesn’t contain eggs, which is unfair (according to Unilever) because the traditional, technical definition of “mayonnaise” includes egg.
If you haven’t heard of Just Mayo, then you probably haven’t strolled down the condiment aisle too recently at Target, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, ShopRite, Costco, Dollar Tree, Safeway or any of the other major grocery stores that carry the product.
Frankly, Hampton Creek is crushing it right now. And the lame conglomerate Unilever is having none of that. This is a new problem for Unilever, who, along with a few other massive companies, have had basically an oligopoly on the shelves at stores like Target and Wal-Mart. Until now.
Here are five reasons why big bad Unilever has made a colossal mistake.
1. Free Press for Just Mayo: They’ve given Just Mayo a ton of free press. Right now, the following outlets are carrying stories online about the lawsuit: Fortune, Forbes, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Salon and not to mention plenty of food blogs and Twitter users.
See, everyone knows Hellmann’s mayonnaise. But not too many people know Just Mayo. And now, because of this lawsuit, a lot more people are about to find out about this alternative by reading about it, watching reports about it on TV, and seeing it on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Great job.
2. Bad Press for Hellmann’s: Does anyone like the story of a greedy mega-corporation suing a much smaller, more socially responsible start-up? You’ll be hard-pressed to find a lot of genuinely pro-Unilever people out there in this story. And what’s worse, it’s pretty obvious they are only doing this because they want to harass a competitor. That’s very anti-free market, and frankly a little bit un-American.
3. Bogus Legal Claim: It’s hard to look at what exactly Unilever is claiming without considering the political circumstances. Their legal claim is relatively hollow and they have plenty of resources to sue and harass smaller companies. It’s clear they are threatened by Just Mayo.
The basis of their claim is that Just Mayo shouldn’t be able to call itself “mayo” because it doesn’t contain eggs. It’s deceptive to consumers, they say.
It seems their entire claim also sort of inherently proves them wrong. If people are getting so easily tricked into thinking eggless mayo is traditional mayonnaise, then maybe eggs are not all that essential to making mayonnaise.
Nevertheless, Unilever is totally serious about this. Here’s what they want: (a) removal of all Just Mayo products from stores, (b) Just Mayo’s profits; and (c) triple damages.
Public health attorney Michele Simon has a lot of doubts about Unilever’s legal claim. She wonders, “Hampton Creek is completely up front about what it’s doing: making a plant-based mayonnaise. Moreover, the product has been covered in major media outlets like Time, Forbes, and Fortune so how can it possibly be deceiving anybody?”
Right on. Just Mayo’s jar itself displays that it is “Egg-Free” and “Vegan.”
4. Eggless Mayo is totally a thing. And the companies that sell eggless mayo usually call their product “mayo.”
I think it’s safe to say consumers (and other companies) understand that some brands make mayo without any egg.
(Popular brand Vegenaise calls their product an “egg-free mayonnaise” in marketing materials, but the name of the product itself doesn’t include the word mayo or mayonnaise, so I didn’t include it on this list. However, their labels do boast that it’s “Better than Mayo.”)
5. Unilever is completely disorganized: Just because Unilever is massive and profitable, doesn’t mean they aren’t a complete mess.
Unilever’s venture capital arm literally owns an egg-free egg replacement company. It’s called Alleggra Foods, and they proudly display its use in mayonnaise. That’s right: mayonnaise made without egg.
Apparently Unilever tried making a commercial vegan mayo around 2006, but it didn’t come out right. Now it looks like they sell their “egg replacers” to food industry buyers (rather than consumers).
Some clever people on reddit’s /r/vegan subreddit discovered that Unilever makes a Hollandaise sauce. According to the FDA, “Egg yolk is the customary emulsifying ingredient in hollandaise sauce.” And further, “Starch is not an acceptable ingredient.” Unilever’s Knorr Hollandaise does not have any egg in it, and the second biggest ingredient is corn starch. Whoops.
Unilever also has a lot of quality people working for them who have said really nice things about Just Mayo. These are Unilever employees, and Hampton Creek has pulled some of their more notable quotes.
From Unilever’s Head Chef, “You guys have a good product.”
Unilever is unleashing a major ad campaign to raise awareness about sustainability called “Project Sunlight.”
Which makes this pretty astounding, from Unilever’s Global VP of Marketing, “Love what you are doing . . . at Hampton Creek!!! Very much in line with our Unilever Project Sunlight #brightfuture philosophy.”
And from Unilever’s official website marketing materials: “. . . [W]e are also exploring ways to further meet consumer needs for products with different nutrition profiles and preferences for plant-based protein sources through the use of egg-replacement ingredients in some product categories.”
Not a good look, Unilever.
Just Mayo, keep up the good work. As for you, Unilever? You should quietly drop the lawsuit. You should get organized. And you should start spending your precious resources on making an awesome eggless mayo. As soon as you do that, I’ll be enthusiastic and write about it here.
If you’re passionate about promoting sustainability, veganism, or new, good ideas, then this is a great time to get involved. Hampton Creek is the kind of company that’s going to make veganism and sustainability mainstream. And Unilever has volunteered themselves as the villain in this debate. Let’s turn them into an ally.
UPDATE (12/18/14): Unilever has dropped its lawsuit against Hampton Creek.