In the complaint, filed in New Jersey on October 31, Unilever accused Hampton Creek of falsely advertising its egg-free spread as ‘Just Mayo’ on the grounds that 'mayo' is short for 'mayonnaise', and mayonnaise must be made with eggs (according to a federal standard of identity).
By marketing an egg-less product as mayo, Hampton Creek was causing “irreparable harm” to Unilever's Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand and the category as a whole, added Unilever, which noted that Just Mayo was "stealing market share" from Hellmann’s.
The lawsuit immediately prompted a wave of bad PR for Unilever, while Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said he was surprised and dispirited by the complaint, given that he had received positive feedback very recently about his business from senior executives at Unilever, adding: "I feel sure that if [Unilever CEO] Paul [Polman] were aware of this lawsuit that he would pause for a moment and ask, is this who we really are?”
In a statement sent to FoodNavigator-USA in mid-November, however, Unilever was sticking to its guns, adding: "Unilever fully supports providing consumers with choices, but we do not support false and misleading labels."
Unilever: 'We applaud Hampton Creek’s commitment to innovation and its inspired corporate purpose'
However, in a statement issued Thursday, Unilever said it had decided to withdraw the lawsuit "so that Hampton Creek can address its label directly with industry groups and appropriate regulatory authorities".
Mike Faherty, Vice President for Foods, Unilever North America, then went on to praise the San Francisco-based company, which has just secured an additional $90m to fund its plant-based foods empire (click HERE).
He added: "We applaud Hampton Creek’s commitment to innovation and its inspired corporate purpose. We share a vision with Hampton Creek of a more sustainable world. It is for these reasons that we believe Hampton Creek will take the appropriate steps in labeling its products going forward.”
The company did not respond to questions about what specific steps it expected Hampton Creek to take, or what prompted the change of heart.
Josh Tetrick: Moment of validation
Josh Tetrick told FoodNavigator-USA that he had not come to any behind-the-scenes settlement or agreed to make any changes to his labels, and stressed: "We're not changing our name."
But he added: "We have a lot of respect for Unilever. As I said before, we'd had positive conversations with executives at Unilever before all this and there was just a misalignment between the lawsuit and the positive things that Unilever as a company is actually doing.
"I think that it's a really cool thing when a company steps back like this and does the right thing and that's an extraordinarily positive thing and it should be celebrated.
"Hampton Creek was founded to open our eyes to the problems the world faces. This moment has only validated why."
Attorney: The press and public reaction tried to make Unilever look like a bully
So what do legal experts make of Unilever's about turn?
David Biderman, a partner in Perkins Coie’s Consumer Class Action Defense practice, told FoodNavigator-USA: "Unilever's lawsuit was not at all frivolous based on the standard of identity for mayonnaise. But the press and public reaction tried to make them look like bullies. I assume there were some principal to principal talks and some very careful drafting of the press release."
Bruce Silverglade, principal at law firm Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC in Washington DC, added: “Unilever’s statement seems to indicate that the matter has been taken up by state or federal regulatory authorities. It remains to be seen whether they take any action.”
Click HERE to read more about Hampton Creek Foods, which has been systematically screening thousands of plants with a ‘laser-like focus on functionality’ to identify those with properties from coagulation, emulsification and aeration to coloring and sweetening.