Mayonnaise is America’s best-selling condiment. Americans buy $2 billion of the spread every year—that’s more than ketchup, soy sauce, and mustard.

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Mayo is one seriously profitable business.

The food giant Unilever—maker of Hellmann’s mayo—has sued Hampton Creek, the San Francisco start-up behind Just Mayo, an egg-less, mayonnaise-like sandwich spread, for “false advertising.” Also, because Unilever has a mayo monopoly to protect.

The mayo giant (which is a 60 billion dollar multinational corporation) argues that Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo is not, “exactly, precisely, only and simply mayonnaise,” as Unilever’s lawyers wrote. They argue that the FDA says mayo must include “egg yolk-containing ingredients.” Unilever wants Hampton Creek to stop calling the product Just Mayo, take the product off store shelves, and pay Unilever damages worth three times the startup’s profits, according to the Washington Post.

According to WaPo, market watchers say Unilever’s response to Just Mayo “highlights the fears from traditional food conglomerates facing unexpected competition from crafty start-ups.” In other words, the “crafty start-up” is giving Big Mayo a run for its money. 

Michele Simon, a public health attorney who wrote about the suit, tells WaPo,

“It’s not about using the (mayo) word. It’s about the fact that this company is taking market share away. And now it’s like they’ve awakened the giant.”

What else is scaring Unilever? Bill Gates is a backer of Hampton Creek, and the startups’ products have spread, in a matter of months, to more than 20,000 Walmarts, Costcos, and other stores across the country.

Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s founder and chief executive, tells WaPo,

“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. 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 Walmart.”

Hampton Creek has stepped on the toes of Big Food, which seems more or less like a victory for smaller natural and organic food producers—at least in our eyes.

Here’s a less-than-subtle illustration from Hampton Creek’s Facebook commenting on the debacle (the illustration has since been deleted):

mayo

Celebrity chefs including Andrew Zimmern have Just Mayo’s back. Zimmern launched a petition, “Stop Bullying Sustainable Food Companies,” which you can sign right here.

That petition had more than 22,000 supporters as of this afternoon.

[via Washington Post]