“Just Mayo” without eggs? FDA warning letter to Hampton Creek Foods

On 20th August 2015 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published the following warning letter, after reviewing Hampton Creek Foods’ Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha labels.

The FDA concludes that these products are in violation of section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 343] and its implementing regulations found in Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 101 (21 CFR 101). Basically, for 4 different reasons:

1-2 Health claims: the presence on the labels and on advertising materials of an unauthorised health claim (“cholesterol-free”, “Your Heart Matters. When your heart is healthy, well, we’re happy. You’ll never find cholesterol in our products.” or equivalent wordings);

3. Misbranding: products are misbranded within the meaning of section 403(a)(1) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 343(a)(1)] in that they purport to be the standardized food mayonnaise due to the misleading name and imagery used on the label, but do not qualify as the standardized food mayonnaise as described under 21 CFR 169.140. The name “Just Mayo” and an image of an egg are prominently featured on the labels for these products. 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 as described under 21 CFR 169.140(c). Additionally, the use of the term “Just” together with “Mayo” reinforces the impression that the products are real mayonnaise by suggesting that they are “all mayonnaise” or “nothing but” mayonnaise. However, Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha do not meet the definition of the standard for mayonnaise. According to the labels for these products, neither product contains eggs.

4. Non compliance with the related standard of identity: products are misbranded within the meaning of section 403(g) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 343(g)] in that they purport to be a food for which a definition and standard of identity has been prescribed by regulation, but they fail to conform to such definition and standard. Specifically, these products purport to be mayonnaise by prominently featuring the word “Mayo” on the labels, which has long been used to refer to mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is a food for which a definition and standard of identity has been prescribed by regulation (see 21 CFR 169.140). 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. We also note that these products contain additional ingredients that are not permitted by the standard, such as modified food starch, pea protein, and beta-carotene, which may be used to impart color simulating egg yolk.

It will be extremely interesting to see how the company will react, trying to defend a really difficult position.

In October 2014 Unilever filed a lawsuit against Hampton Creek, raising more or less the same arguments. Few months later, anyway, they drop the action without any reason. Probably, they prefer to wait the enforcement action by the FDA, in light of the fact that a petition on Change.org calling on Unilever to “stop bullying sustainable food companies” gathered more than 112.000 signature in few days.

Sustainable or not (that’s completely another matter), the Hampton Creek position in my opinion is quite critical because:

  1. in US there is a standard of identity for mayonnaise and they don’t meet it;
  2. they suggest both by wording and pictorial of eggs that their products are mayonnaise;
  3. “mayo” is commonly understand all over the world as a synonym of mayonnaise and the egg is a characterizing ingredient of such a product.

Therefore, also in case you remove from the equation the standard of identity, the product could still be considered misleading.

It is interesting to stress that in EU, one of the innovation brought by the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (or “FIC”, Reg. (EU) n. 1169/2011, entered in application on 13th December 2014) considered specifically the ingredient’s substitution.

The art. 7 on Fair information practices provides that food information shall not be misleading, particularly:

“(d) by suggesting, by means of the appearance, the description or pictorial representations, the presence of a particular food or an ingredient, while in reality a component naturally present or an ingredient normally used in that food has been substituted with a different component or a different ingredient.”

Moreover, the Annex VI, point 4, establishes a positive obligation to label this kind of ingredients, with specific rules for positioning and font size:

“In the case of foods in which a component or ingredient that consumers expect to be normally used or naturally present has been substituted with a different component or ingredient, the labelling shall bear — in addition to the list of ingredients — a clear indication of the component or the ingredient that has been used for the partial or whole substitution:

(a) in close proximity to the name of the product; and

(b) using a font size which has an x-height of at least 75 % of the x-height of the name of the product and which is not smaller than the minimum font size required in Article 13(2) of this Regulation.”

4 thoughts on ““Just Mayo” without eggs? FDA warning letter to Hampton Creek Foods

  1. Thank your for this interesting post. Reference can also be made to the recent Teekanne decision from ECJ, which decided that a label can mislead about the product composition even when the ingredients’ list is correct. In that case, Teekanne gave the wrong impression that the product contained vanilla and raspberry while it appeared from the ingredients’ list that it was not the case.
    In the context of the free movement of goods, one has also to bear in mind that regulations regarding denominations can sometimes be criticized under the EU rules as they can restrict the free movement of good within the EU. In Belgium, without commenting the merits of the case, producers of mayonaise usually complain, for instance, about the high level of fat Belgian law requires to benefit from the denomination, while other member states do not require the same, creating a competitive disadvantage for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you Gregory, indeed. In my opinion we didn’t really need the Teekanne case 😀 : also the Hampton Creek ingredients list is correct, but for general principles on fair commercial practices a product can be misleading (both in US and EU) despite a correct ingredient list. An that was true long before Teekanne.

    Moreover the case is probably not so well known by our US readers (60% of my blog traffic) and I preferred to avoid the reference and keep the post short and linear. It’s interesting your reference to the Belgian issue: I understand you have a legal definition of mayonnaise?

    All the best,

    Cesare

    Like

  3. Hi Cesare,
    I agree. The teekanne case was not necessery here. I referred to that case only to add an argument that could have been used. In Belgium, mayonnaise is defined by law: it must contain 80% fat and 7.7% yolk. This is why Belgian producers usually complain about imports since producers from other Member states are not bound by such strict rules.
    Regards,
    Grégory

    Like

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