Real mayo isn’t just a Heinz slogan. No, in the great United States, real mayo is something defined in the Code of Federal Regulations. Let’s examine it ourselves in Title 21 (“Food and Drugs”), Chapter I (“Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services”), Subchapter B (“Food for Human Consumption”), Part 169 (“Food Dressings and Flavorings”), Subpart B (“Requirements for Specific Standardized Food Dressings and Flavorings”), Section 169.140 (“Mayonnaise”):
(a) Description. Mayonnaise is the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and one or more of the egg yolk-containing ingredients specified in paragraph (c) of this section. One or more of the ingredients specified in paragraph (d) of this section may also be used. The vegetable oil(s) used may contain an optional crystallization inhibitor as specified in paragraph (d)(7) of this section. All the ingredients from which the food is fabricated shall be safe and suitable. Mayonnaise contains not less than 65 percent by weight of vegetable oil. Mayonnaise may be mixed and packed in an atmosphere in which air is replaced in whole or in part by carbon dioxide or nitrogen.
This definition has become an actual problem for Hampton Creek, a San Francisco–based food technology company and maker of eggless mayo substitute Just Mayo. The issue, as you might have gathered from our brief dip into the federal code, is that the FDA does not believe that Just Mayo is, in fact, mayo. Specifically, the FDA feels that Just Mayo and related Hampton Creek products “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.” This is from a warning letter sent from the FDA to Hampton Creek CEO Joshua Tetrick, via overnight mail, dated Aug. 12 and posted online Tuesday. The FDA also notes that Hampton Creek makes certain claims about the nutrient content and healthiness of its products, but that the products themselves don’t meet the FDA’s bar for being able to make such boasts.
The upshot of all this is that the FDA has deemed Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo products “misbranded” under Section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. You might say Hampton Creek has impugned the integrity of mayonnaise itself. “Mayonnaise is a food for which a definition and standard of identity has been prescribed by regulation,” the FDA writes. “These products do not conform to the standard for mayonnaise.” Hampton Creek is expected to “take prompt action to correct the violations,” which surely means either changing the name of its signature product or fighting the agency. Either way, that promises to be a giant headache for Hampton Creek, which only just got past a lawsuit over the definition of mayo brought by the maker of Hellmann’s. So yeah, rough break. Though it’s kind of funny to think that the one thing Silicon Valley might not be able to disrupt isn’t taxis, or laundry, or 911, or even food in general. It’s emulsified semisolid food.