WASHINGTON - A big-money war is brewing over the meaning of America's best-selling condiment: mayonnaise.
The maker of Hellmann's mayo, food giant Unilever, has sued the San Francisco start-up behind Just Mayo, an egg-free, mayonnaise-like sandwich spread giving Big Mayo a run for its money.
The global food giant argues that Hampton Creek's Just Mayo is not, as Unilever lawyers wrote, "exactly, precisely, only and simply mayonnaise," as defined by the dictionary and the Food and Drug Administration, which says mayo must include "egg yolk-containing ingredients."
The Just Mayo identity crisis, Unilever lawyers said, has hurt Hellmann's market share, "caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever" and the mayo industry as a whole. The firm wants Hampton Creek to stop calling its product Just Mayo, yank it off store shelves and pay Unilever damages worth three times the start-up's profits.
It is a strangely defensive stance for Unilever, a Big Food titan that made more than $64 billion last year selling foodstuffs in nearly 200 countries (including I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, a spread that is not butter). Hellmann's, which is called Best Foods on the West Coast, dominates 45 percent of the mayo market, data from industry researcher Euromonitor shows.
But market watchers say it highlights the fears of traditional food conglomerates facing unexpected competition from crafty start-ups. It is perhaps no coincidence that the biggest battleground is mayonnaise: Americans buy $2 billion of the stuff every year - more even than ketchup, salsa or soy sauce.
"It's not about using the [mayo] word," said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who wrote about the suit. "It's about the fact that this company is taking market share away. And now it's like they've awakened the giant."
That the plant-based Just Mayo is a new type of food will lend an interesting dimension to the legal proceedings: Brand disputes typically quibble over words, not the definition of the product itself.
But the very modern legal battle will be fought on regulatory territory that is decades old. The FDA's definition of mayo was set in 1957, decades before the phrase "vegan mayonnaise" ever made sense. (Maintaining that "standard of identity" is important: Kraft Foods' Miracle Whip, which doesn't meet the FDA's standard, is technically a salad dressing.)
Unilever doesn't just call out Just Mayo for what it calls confusing branding - advertisements have called the stuff "mayo," and its logo resembles an egg - it also says the company has no proof of its claims of beating Hellmann's in a taste test.
So what's spooking Big Food? Hampton Creek has some big backers, including Bill Gates, and in a matter of months has spread rapidly to more than 20,000 Wal-Marts, Costcos and other stores across the country.
While other organic spreads, such as Vegenaise, play up their place in the vegan niche, Hampton Creek has widely promoted Just Mayo as a mainstream brand: healthy, cheap and good for everybody. (Company ads rarely call it "vegan.")
"We don't market our product to tree-hugging liberals in San Francisco, even though I'm in the middle of nine of them right now," said Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek's founder and chief executive. "We built the company to try to really penetrate the places where better-for-you food hasn't gone before, and that means right in the condiment aisle of Wal-Mart."
The fate of Just Mayo, which swapped out eggs for Canadian yellow peas, will be watched closely by other food conglomerates. Hampton Creek also sells Just Cookies, a line of egg-and-milk-free cookie dough, and is working on a gooey egg-free mix, Just Scramble.
The suit comes at a touchy time for Unilever, which just launched an ad campaign promoting itself as devoted to sustainability, and which backed its own soy-based egg alternative, Alleggra Foods, nearly 10 years ago. Messages left with the firm were not returned Monday.
Just Mayo has fought back with the help of celebrity chefs including Andrew Zimmern, who launched a petition, "Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies," that has more than 11,000 signers.
Tetrick, the start-up's chief executive, said his firm is looking at the lawsuit as a chance to not just expand its corporate profile, but also to lift up its egg-free sandwich spread as the touchpoint for a larger food-based cultural movement.
"A lawsuit gives us the opportunity to talk about the things that matter," he said. "So we'll take it."