What do you do when your signature product’s name is deemed unacceptable by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? That’s the situation Hampton Creek is in after the government agency sent a warning letter to the company regarding its Just Mayo brand.
Hampton Creek, a company that merges biotechnology and plant-based ingredients to create environmentally friendly and healthier foods, formulates Just Mayo without the eggs used in traditional mayonnaise products, replacing them with pea protein and modified food starch.
While the makeup of the Just Mayo makes it unique, it’s also the crux of the FDA’s issue. In the Code of Federal Regulations, mayonnaise is defined as, “The emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and one or more of the egg yolk-containing ingredients specified in paragraph (c) of this section.”
Beyond using the term “mayo” the FDA also wrote that the term “just” implies that the product is “nothing but” or “all” mayonaise. They also cited the egg featured predominantly on the products’ packaging as reinforcing the belief that there are eggs in the product, rather than its intended effect of calling out the lack of eggs.
Despite the warning letter, Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said that the company is not planning on changing the name of Just Mayo.
“There’s no reason for us to rename the product,” Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told Inc. magazine. He noted that “it says egg free right there on the label, and anyone can look at the ingredients on the back and see what the ingredients are.”
In addition to the basic definition of mayonnaise, the FDA regulates what additional elements (such as salt, acidifying ingredients, spices and more) can be included in a product called mayonnaise. Any spices or flavorings are not allowed to “impart to the mayonnaise a color simulating the color imparted by egg yolk.” Hampton Creek’s product does contain such ingredients, the FDA stated.
If the naming issue wasn’t enough, the FDA also found issue with low/no cholesterol statements made by Hampton Creek on the Just Mayo product labels as well as the company website. According to the FDA, Just Mayo does not meet the requirements to make such a claim. The nutrition labels and statement of the place of business for the products also failed to meet requirements.
This is not the first time that the Just Mayo name has caused issues for Hampton Creek. In December, consumer products conglomerate Unilever (which counts Hellmann’s and Best Foods mayonnaise as part of its portfolio) sued the company over false advertising. Similar to the FDA issue, Unilever said that the product name was misleading and made customers think they were buying traditional mayonnaise.
Tetrick also told Inc. that his response to FDA was the same as the one to Unilever, which has dropped its suit. In a statement published on the Unilever website, Mike Faherty, Vice President for Foods of Unilever North America, said “Unilever has decided to withdraw its lawsuit against Hampton Creek so that Hampton Creek can address its label directly with industry groups and appropriate regulatory authorities.”
The recent news comes after a rocky year for Hampton Creek. In the spring, The New York Times reported that Hampton Creek had laid off nearly a fifth of its workforce (about 12 of the reported 65 employees).
Most recently this month, the website Business Insider released a scathing article based on employee interviews that claimed the company was riddled with issues, practiced unhygienic and unsafe practices, and faced problems related to human resources. The company also accused of ethical violations and used poor science.
Despite these hurdles and more, Hampton Creek has raised $120 million over five rounds of funding, according website Crunchbase. The last round of $90 million was closed just less than a year ago in December.
The FDA letter, which was dated August 12th, gives Hampton Creek has 15 working days to respond. Tetrick told Inc. that he is in discussions with the FDA regarding the warning letter. FBU reached out to Hampton Creek for comment but hasn’t received a response as of press time.