A trip to the grocery store will have you come into contact with more than 42,000 products. We don't look at every product, because we don't need to. For many of the foods that line the shelves, there are inherent characteristics that allow us to know with certainty that the products in the packaging match the name on the label. It is a system most of us probably give little thought to each time we select which items will go into our shopping cart. But some have come to question the standards that underpin our current food system after Hampton Creek was put on notice by the Food and Drug Administration and told it could not call its eggless condiment, Just Mayo.
Last month, Hampton Creek, the plant-based food startup, was issued a warning letter by the FDA informing the company of multiple violations in regards to its labeling practices. Among the problems was the company's failure to meet the decades old standards of identity for mayonnaise, which state it must contain vegetable oil, an acidifying ingredient of either vinegar, lemon juice or lime juice and an egg yolk-containing ingredient. Hampton Creek's product uses yellow peas in place of the egg as well as modified food starch, which are not permitted.
The company has remained adamant that it has no intention of changing its name, and is standing by its decision to call its product mayo. "As it pertains to Just Mayo, we feel we are on the right side of the standard of identity, said Josh Tetrick, founder and CEO of Hampton Creek. "The standard of identity says mayonnaise, and we call it mayo."
This isn’t the first time Hampton Creek has come against opposition about its use of the name mayo. In October 2014, Unilever, the multinational brand behind Hellmann's and Best Foods’ mayonnaise, filed suit alleging false advertising and unfair competition over Hampton Creek's branding of its egg-free spread as mayo. The suit was dropped in December 2014 with the company opting to let industry groups and regulatory authorities handle the labeling issues. We reached out to Unilever on this development, but it declined to comment.
This latest round of legal woes have caused many of Hampton Creek's staunch supporters to dispute the merits of the standards of identity and question why they exist in the first place.
Considered a landmark in U.S. food policy, the standards of identity were created under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938 to protect consumers by correcting abuses in food packaging and quality. Its predecessor, the 1906 Food and Drugs Act, attempted to prohibit misbranded and adulterated foods, but proved to be ineffective because it lacked criteria for purity and content. As a result, products like Bred-Spred were allowed to masquerade as jam despite containing coal tar and no fruit. The standards of identity picked up where the previous act had fallen short and provided a recipe for certain foods with mandatory requirements that the FDA could enforce.
But the matter runs deeper than an argument over its product name for Hampton Creek. Its mission has always been about bringing healthy and affordable food to the masses while creating a safer and more sustainable food system. The company claims to have saved 2.1 billion gallons of water this year by replacing eggs in its product. Tetrick believes the regulatory framework needs to evolve to meet the challenges in our food system and give way to alternative ideas in food. "For us, it is much more important than Just Mayo. We've got to have a system that is unleashing mores sustainable approaches in food. The Just Mayo thing is the least important thing we are thinking about."
And Hampton Creek isn’t the only company testing the boundaries with its product names, and experts predict it will happen with greater frequency as more plant-based alternatives meant to approximate animal-based foods hit the market.
"As Americans move from less meat and dairy to a more plant-based diet, which is both trendy and in step with the latest guidance from the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we are seeing more liberties taken with namesakes,” said Dr. Rachel Cheatham, CEO of Foodscape Group, an industry consultancy, and an adjunct professor of nutrition marketing at Tufts University. “Chicken becomes chikn and cheese becomes cheez by companies looking to fly under the radar of the standard of identity issue."
In some cases, creative marketing might keep vegan food makers out of the line of sight of the FDA, and it also allows them to tap into a much bigger audience. People classifying themselves as vegan make up only two percent of the population, so there is a strong business case to position your product as something the average consumer is already familiar with.
Tetrick has been steadfast about his desire to elevate Hampton Creek’s out of the vegan food category in a bid to appeal to mainstream consumers. “You want to fit into how most folks are living their lives as opposed to framing things as a niche alternative for my hippie friends in Northern California. It doesn’t really make for a company that is having a maximum impact.”
But legal experts think the company has misplaced priorities. "They have elevated marketing over sound regulatory practices that are meant to protect the public," said Sarah Brew, partner and leader of the food regulatory and litigation practice, Faegre Baker Daniels.
As the population grows, the food system faces greater demands. In looking to the future, we should be compelled to re-evaluate standards and regulations to make sure they allow for innovation and still serve their original intent. But these advances shouldn't come at a cost of consumer transparency and that is the balance we will have to find.