Hellmann’s Drops Suit, Unintentionally Boosts Vegan ‘Mayo’ Sales

Hellmanns_Mayonnaise_vegan_Mike_MozartOur perceptions of food are changing, and so is our level of acceptance toward changes to those quintessential recipes we grew up with. Just log into a cooking site and you can find a mayonnaise recipe to fit just about any dietary restriction or preference. No eggs? No problem.

But that isn’t how Hellmann’s, which refers to its egg-full sandwich spread as “real mayonnaise,” saw it. Last November Hellmann’s, owned by Best Foods (which is owned by Unilever), launched a suit against a startup food company for misleading consumers by referring to its new eggless product “mayo.”

The vegan product, boldly called “Just Mayo,” was the brainchild of Hampton Creek, a food tech company based in San Francisco that’s become known for its unorthodox approach to America’s quintessential recipes. In the manufacturing giant’s view, however, the recipe alteration confused consumers and constituted “stealing market share from Hellmann’s.”

After consumers protested and Hellmann’s was accused of tweaking information on its website that suggested that some of its mayo products might also be missing eggs, the company dropped the suit  a week before Christmas.

With new research that suggests that food allergies are increasing in the western world and current concerns about H5N1 outbreaks in poultry  in the Northwest, the U.S. market is ripe for vegan/vegetarian products that can address individual needs and preferences. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, 3.4 percent or 7.5 million surveyed identified themselves as vegetarian in 2009. Of that number, 0.80 percent, or 1.8 million said they were vegan. The numbers have increased in recent years, with confessions by movie stars and political icons who admit they’ve sworn off of meat-based foods.

All of this puts weight in Hampton Creek’s favor and has likely piqued the interest of other food manufacturers as well. Still, it brings up a great question for today’s foodies: Does altering mama’s state-of-the-art recipe change what you can call the store-bought product? Is gluten-free bread that touts “whole grains” (and includes a good amount of things like tapioca and buckwheat) fudging the context?

It’s a question that most food manufacturers don’t want to become embroiled in these days, particularly in light of the increasing debate over genetically modified organisms (GMO) and the questions concerning U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that allow drink producers to advertise their highly-sugared juice cocktail drinks as “juice” on store banners.

As for Just Mayo, sales have been just great since Hellmann’s launched its suit. A consumer-led online petition and plenty of advertising from the suit helped promote its brand name as well as its vegan-friendly qualities. I’ll be interested to see what new tangents mayo-makers come up with next to court the interests of America’s growing number of vegetarian consumers.

Image credit: Mike Mozart

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

5 responses

  1. It helped considerably that “Just Mayo” is, in fact, quite delicious. I was unaware of it prior to the Unilever lawsuit and grabbed a jar from my local market. I used it in a vegan “faux tuna” salad recipe and was shocked by how flavorful it is – indistinguishable from traditional egg-based mayonnaises. Now it’s a condiment staple at my house.

  2. Unilever, the corporate owner of Hellmann’s, should be chided and complimented for corporate irresponsibility and responsibility, respectively. Unilever filed a lawsuit (irresponsible) against start-up Hampton Creek, maker of the eggless product “Just Mayo”, then dropped it (responsible) a month later.

    Companies are too quick to use the legal system to accomplish economic advantage rather than doing it the old fashioned way: by creating and selling superior products. Overlegalization—excessive use of the legal system for more than mere assertion or defense of legal rights—overburdens the system, adds unnecessary costs, and breeds irresponsibility. So hats off to Unilever, after we stop throwing eggs at it.

    1. I would like to point out that some companies will have no choice but to file suit against another in an effort to protect their own rights. Even if the infringement causes zero damage, the simple lack of litigation can, legally, be construed as acceptance of the infringing party’s actions. A suit must be brought if merely to prevent condoning the actions of the other company. No suit = condoning of actions = opening of door to any and all comers after the fact. The suit keeps the door closed.

      1. If
        I understand John’s comment correctly, he is suggesting that at times a lawsuit
        is justified simply to draw a line in the sand relative to possible future other
        parties. If that understanding is correct, it is a sad state of affairs that
        Party A needs to sue Party B, and inflict costs and burdens on Party B, only to
        further Party A’s possible future relationships with other currently unknown
        parties. It is an example of overlegalization run amuck.

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