As a food technologist, I avidly follow certain reports in the news. A recent one of interest has been the widely reported saga of a food product called “Just Mayo” manufactured by Hampton Creek. Inc., a food processor, of San Francisco, Calif.
The tradition of ersatz food products is a long and colorful one. These substitute foods are especially common during times of food scarcity. A prominent example is the production of coffee substitutes during wars. To protect consumers, many countries develop standards of identity for food to ensure that products known by certain names are, indeed, what they claim to be. (as a side note, appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOCs are similar standards.)
Standards of identity are mandatory requirements, set by regulatory agencies, to ensure that a food product, marketed under a certain name, must contain the proper ingredients that define the product. When I was an undergraduate (many years ago!), we spent a lot of time pouring over U.S. federal standards of identity for mayonnaise, salad dressing, and imitation sandwich spreads. Did the food label accurately reflect the contents of the jar for consumers? For more on standards for food dressings, see the CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Part 169: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a572c500d050d311d0082b97f1c69940&mc=true&tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title21/21cfr169_main_02.tpl
The story of “Just Mayo” has had many twists. But, for me as a food technologist, it boils down to this: according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the product, as originally labeled, was misbranded. Indeed, on August 12, 2015, the U.S. FDA sent a warning letter to the company. The Warning Letter to Hampton Creek Foods 8/12/15 makes this clear on several points: http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/2015/ucm458824.htm. In particular, as item 3 in the letter states: “…Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha 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, your 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. Additionally, the products contain additional ingredients that are not permitted by the standard of identity for mayonnaise, such as modified food starch.”
After receiving the letter, the company agreed to work with FDA and make labeling changes to ensure its products are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading. I urge all food technologists to read the warning letter and consider it as a case study in current food labeling practice. Although, and despite the federal standard of identity, I am still left with an odd feeling that I, now, do not know what exactly mayonnaise is. Certainly, this product is not mayonnaise according to the standard.