The maker of an egg-less mayonnaise product is stirring things up. But its cofounder and CEO tells Inc. he is resolutely unshaken.

At the end of last month, Unilever, the owner of mayonnaise brands Hellman's and Best Foods, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in New Jersey against Hampton Creek. It alleges false advertising and fake competition by the three-year-old California startup.

The complaint hinges on the composition of mayonnaise, which traditionally contains eggs, oil, and an acid, say, vinegar or lemon--and the definition of its common shorthand mayo. 

"Under federal regulations, common dictionary definitions, and as consumers understand it, "mayonnaise" or "mayo" is a product that contains eggs. That ingredient does not exist in Just Mayo," the civil complaint reads. "By calling its vegan sandwich spread Just Mayo, Hampton Creek falsely communicates to consumers that Just Mayo is mayonnaise, when in fact, it is not."

Hampton Creek's Just Mayo is sold on thousands of store shelves around the country, including Costco, Kroeger, Safeway, and Whole Foods. Josh Tetrick, the co-founder and CEO of Hampton Creek, which also makes eggless, cholesterol-free cookies and is quickly branching into new product lines, says the startup has consulted with legal counsel in the past, and feels unthreatened by Unilever's lawsuit.

"We will stand firm in terms of where we think we are in terms of the law," Tetrick says. "This is mayo and not mayonnaise."

Unilever subsidiary Conopco is demanding that Hampton Creek change the label of its Just Mayo, which features a plant growing inside an egg--a nod to the fact food scientists employed by Hampton Creek have discovered plant proteins that substitute for egg in many products. Hampton Creek touts this substitution as a massive benefit--and the existence for the company.

"We are trying to make the right thing for the environment--and the body," says Tetrick. "We believe that the thing that's affordable should be more healthful and taste better."

The Wall Street Journal called the lawsuit" the latest battle between established food companies and the emerging natural- and organic-food producers that are luring skeptical consumers away from traditional packaged foods."

But what's interesting here is that Hampton Creek is not targeting a traditional "natural foods" shopper, nor is it limiting itself to independent green grocers for exposure. A cornerstone of the business from Day One, Tetrick told Inc., is breaking into major grocery stores, fast food restaurants, and the mass food-service industry.

The company isn't just shooting for the moon merely to make money. It has a social mission: to decrease the global food supply's dependence on factory farming, and make a healthy, reliable source of protein that's actually cheaper than the egg. 

"Together we thought: What would the world look like in which doing something better for the [earth] was 30 or 40 percent less expensive, rather than 30 or 40 percent more expensive?" Tetrick told me earlier this year. "And [my co-founder] Josh [Balk] said, 'Well, maybe we use plants instead of animals?' And that was the spark." 

Hampton Creek, a private company, has not disclosed revenue, though it is funded by more than $30 million in investment from the likes of Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing. Unilever reported $62 billion in 2013 revenue.

Unilever's complaint contends that Just Mayo is hurting its mayonnaise sales: "Just Mayo already is stealing market share from Hellmann's."

The complaint gained visibility this week as a petition circulated online, asking Unilever to "stop bullying sustainable food companies," and to "focus more on creating a better world rather than preventing others from trying to do so." It has by November 11 gathered more than 15,000 signatures.

Unilever did not respond to a request for comment.

Published on: Nov 11, 2014