Unilever, maker of Best Foods mayonnaise, a.k.a. Hellmann’s, is suing Hampton Creek, a San Francisco startup that’s trying to disrupt the mayonnaise space (which you may not have thought of as disruptable, or even a space. But you’re probably not a San Francisco startup, either).
The case has to do with Hampton Creek using the word “mayo” along with an egg shape on its labels. As the L.A. Times put it, CEO Josh Tetrick “believes his company is absolved of false advertising claims because his spread uses the colloquialism ‘mayo’ and not ‘mayonnaise.’ U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for mayonnaise contain egg yolk.”
Unilever is accusing Hampton Creek of false advertising because its product does not contain eggs. That’s the whole point: Hampton Creek is trying to create food that’s delicious, healthy, and free of the problems associated with animal agriculture.
The interesting thing about this spat is that neither side is wholly aligned with the normal ideological divide on food. The lawsuit is like a real-life thought experiment that forces us to test our philosophical positions.
Unilever is the corporate giant, fully enmeshed in conventional agriculture. Yet it is the party arguing for the principle of real food — for mayonnaise that your grandmother would recognize as mayonnaise.
Hampton Creek’s Tetrick, on the other hand, talks about the need for major change in modern agriculture. But he wants to find solutions by going to the lab rather than back to the land.
Having just written a piece on path dependency in agriculture, I will note that Unilever is using government regulations in an effort to defend the current path from change. Government pressure can help push us onto a new path, but regulations are also a major cause of path dependency.
In this case, the traditional assumptions of the Big Business techno-optimists and the small-is-beautiful romantics meet an egg beater. Just look at the comments below this Wired story on Hampton Creek for a taste of how many opinions can result from this scramble.
It will be worth watching to see how this plays out. Are we more willing to embrace new food technology when it helps shake up the old food system?