Hampton Creek, the San Francisco startup bent on shaking up the food industry, has run into a problem with its egg-free mayonnaise, Just Mayo: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it's not actually mayonnaise at all.
In addition, the FDA contends that Hampton Creek makes misleading claims about how healthy its mayonnaise (or non-mayonnaise, as the case may be) is.
The FDA laid out its charges in an Aug. 12 letter to the company that was made public Tuesday.
CEO Josh Tetrick told BuzzFeed News that, after speaking with the FDA by phone, he intends to work with the agency to find common ground. "We feel really good where we are on the legal side, policy side, and regulatory side," he said. "From my perspective, the fact that this is even a topic of conversation is a reason why we need to rethink across policy and regulatory frameworks how we stimulate sustainable innovation in food."
Hampton Creek, founded in 2011, portrays itself as a pioneer of sustainability with egg-free foods that use plant proteins instead. It's backed by $120 million in venture funding and sells its products — Just Mayo, Just Cookie Dough, and Just Cookies — in Costco, Safeway, Dollar Tree, Whole Foods, ShopRite, Kroger, Walmart, and Target.
The startup's ascension hasn't always been smooth, however. This month, Business Insider interviewed anonymous ex-employees who said that the products were less than scientifically sound. In November, Unilever — the food conglomerate that owns mayonnaise brand Hellmann's — sued Hampton Creek, saying its white, creamy spread does not meet the FDA's definition of "mayonnaise." That definition says that a food labeled as such must contain egg yolk. "They have an egg on their package but not in their product — they're just not mayo," Mike Faherty, vice president for foods of Unilever North America, said at the time.
Unilever dropped its charges soon after, saying it would leave Hampton Creek to deal with regulatory agencies directly. At the time, Tetrick told reporters, "Hampton Creek was founded to open our eyes to the problems the world faces. This moment has only validated why."
But the FDA picked up where Unilever left off. In its recent letter to Hampton Creek, the agency said that Just Mayo, including its Sriracha-flavored version, is "misbranded."
"The name 'Just Mayo' and an image of an egg are prominently featured on the labels for these products," the agency wrote. "The term 'mayo' has long been used and understood as shorthand or slang for mayonnaise. The use of the term 'mayo' in the product names and the image of an egg may be misleading to consumers because it may lead them to believe that the products are the standardized food, mayonnaise, which must contain eggs."
Tetrick told BuzzFeed News that Just Mayo was deliberately named so as to not be confused with the FDA-sanctioned definition of mayonnaise. "We use 'mayo' and put 'egg-free' on there and obviously it doesn't contain a chicken egg," he said. "It's right there on the label."
Tetrick, who'd made the same argument against Unilever's lawsuit, added, "We did think the issue had been put to bed but that's life." He said that his company has been in "dialogue with tons of government agencies," including FDA officials, in the past.
The FDA also took issue with Hampton Creek's claim that Just Mayo is cholesterol-free and with the company's marketing message "Your Heart Matters. When your heart is healthy, well, we're happy. You'll never find cholesterol in our products." If a small dose of food has more than 13 grams of total fat per 50 grams, the FDA says, then the label must disclose that level of fat in addition to any claims about cholesterol. But Just Mayo exceeds that fat-per-gram ratio, and lacks a label saying such, the FDA said.
"While there are authorized health claims about cholesterol and the reduced risk of heart disease, these products do not qualify to make these health claims, in part, due to the amount of fat that they contain," the agency wrote.
In response, Tetrick told BuzzFeed News, "We've done a lot of work with labeling experts to try to get our label set and we feel pretty strongly that we're disclosing the things that are important for us to put out."
The FDA gave Hampton Creek 15 days to respond to its letter at the time it was issued.
This article has been updated to include comment from Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick.