Just Mayo - A Case Study In Accurate Food Labeling & Marketing Moxie

Food labeling mistakes can make for big press and big expenses

Hampton Creek Just Mayo
This Just Mayo food label may be collectible - because the FDA says the egg graphic and use of "mayo" could confuse consumers. Hamton Creek

Food manufacturers are no strangers to labeling issues and errors. Labeling regulations can be very confusing. Unclear guidelines on terms like "natural" make it tempting to push the boundaries of what's allowed.

Hampton Creek's Just Mayo — which may soon have another name, or not — is a fascinating study in marketing, naming and labeling.

Introducing Our Hero: Hampton Creek

Innovative food startup Hampton Creek has funding of $90+ million powering their quest to re-make more sustainable versions of classic foods, from vegan mayonnaise to vegan chocolate chip cookie dough.

 

Like all good stories involving epic goals, Hampton Creek's has been paved with triumphs, pitfalls, challenges and drama. 

The Challenge: A Lawsuit By a Major Corporation

Once upon a time, Hampton Creek triumphed over claims from mayonnaise makers like Unilever, which claimed "Just Mayo" is not mayo at all. Unilever had dropped its lawsuit in December 2014, saying that "Hampton Creek can address its label directly with industry groups and regulatory authorities."

Like scandals, lawsuits are the perfect fodder for press. This lawsuit brought Hampton Creek's Just Mayo to the nation's attention, which naturally led to sales — most spectacularly, with 7-Eleven switching to Just Mayo. Then, egg shortages due to avian flu in the U.S. gave the company a further boost in sales and press for its egg substitute and eggless foods.

The Turning Point: "This is Not Mayo" Letter From the FDA

Like all good stories, our hero encountered an epic challenge.

As Unilever had suggested, the day came when the FDA delivered a letter to Hampton Creek with some bad, bad news on two fronts:

  1. about design and content errors and omissions on the Just Mayo labels
  2. about the product name "Just Mayo"

The FDA drew the line on "mayo or not" in a detailed letter to Hampton Creek:

"According to the standard of identity for mayonnaise, egg is a required ingredient (21 CFR 169.140(c)); however, based on the ingredient information on the labels, these products do not contain eggs."

The FDA also stated the logo design, inspired by an egg shape, could confuse customers, as Hampton Creek's ingredients are plant-based rather than egg-based.

Positive Resolution Through Good Old-Fashioned Communication

Hampton Creek's initial response was that they do not have plans to change the name of Just Mayo.

December 2015 Update: In a somewhat bizarre resolution, the FDA has ruled that Hampton Creek can continue to use the name Just Mayo. The catch? The label needs to define the word "just" on the label as meaning “guided by reason, justice and fairness” rather than implying the food is a copy of mayonnaise as in using the word just to mean "only."

What a great challenge for some copywriters!

10/26/15 Update: The plot thickens as communications from the American Egg Board indicate just how big a threat the Egg Board believes Just Mayo poses.

8/27/15 Update: CEO Josh Tetrick and FDA representatives had a phone call in which it became clear, Tetrick says, that the FDA sees the importance behind what Hampton Creek is doing and why it matters to our food system.

"This is larger than a conversation about mayo, as innovation," says Tetrick. "They understand our mission more than folks realize, and want to find a way forward."

The Hampton Creek team plans to meet in person with the FDA to discuss the company's approach. 

These positive steps show how useful communicating and collaborating are rather than taking an adversarial approach. I will update this article as new developments in this exciting story unfold. 

Food Labeling Errors and Mistakes are Expensive

Trashing product and re-printing packaging can crush an under-funded specialty food startup. 

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) specifies:

  • what text needs to be on a food package
  • where it needs to appear
  • text point size 
  • details such as boxes and lines delineating the information. 

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The FDA regulations are all in the spirit of helping consumers understand the foods they're choosing. As a consumer yourself, it's important to be able to pick up and compare packages at the supermarket with ease or understand any stated health claims.

5 Lessons Learned for Food Entrepreneurs

Food entrepreneurs can take away several lessons from Hampton Creek's story:

  1. Think big. Audacious goals make for a great story and attract funding.
  2. Prepare for battle. When you take on popular food categories and big food companies with a new twist, you can expect to be challenged. 
  3. Weigh risks and rewards. The challenge may be worth the energy, time and expense if you believe the risk will ultimately pay off.
  4. Do it right the first time. The price of a food labeling expert, designer experienced in food package design and even a food lawyer are worth it when you're aiming to go big.
  5. Do good. The Hampton Creek website has very little information and an eclectic approach to communicating what's going on. Given that they are on a mission to re-think (and improve) the food we eat, their approach can only help them.

The ultimate lesson: Be flexible. The resolution of Hampton Creek being able to keep the name Just Mayo is huge, after all the awareness they have built for that name.

When It's Time to Define Your Own Food Products 

The FDA defines fresh sausage as "a coarse or finely 'comminuted' (reduced to minute particles) meat food product prepared from one or more kinds of meat, or meat and meat 'byproducts' (heart, kidney, or liver, for example)."

So what happens when a vegan "meat" company makes meatless sausages? 

The choice of whether to go the safe route and invent more descriptive terms, or use descriptors that the FDA does not regulate. Or, take the audacious approach like Hampton Creek and take a category and big competitors head on.

We live in challenging times (drought, bees, a growing population) that call for creative innovations in the food system. Kudos to Hampton Creek for re-thinking food for this new world.