NEW YORK (AP) — Mayonnaise impostors, beware! An industry group is patrolling the grocery aisles.
The Association for Dressings and Sauces, which was founded in 1926, repeatedly urged federal regulators last year to take action against an upstart vegan spread that it said was masquerading as mayonnaise, despite its lack of eggs, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
The Food and Drug Administration later sent a public warning to Hampton Creek about its "Just Mayo" spread, which triggered national headlines and ultimately led to the San Francisco startup and media darling tweaking its label.
The efforts provide a glimpse into the influence industry groups can wield behind the scenes, even if their names may be difficult to take seriously. The American Pizza Community, for instance, represents the interests of companies like Domino's and Godfather's Pizza. The National Confectioners Association promotes candy's fun, carefree image on behalf of members like Hershey.
On its website, the Association for Dressings and Sauces says it has a 16-member board and a Horseradish Information Council. The group doesn't list a physical address and is managed by the Kellen Company, a firm that manages industry associations.
According to emails obtained through a freedom of information request, the association first reached out to the FDA just months before a high-profile spat erupted between one of its members, a heavyweight mayonnaise maker, and Hampton Creek.
Unilever, the parent company of Hellmann's mayonnaise, had sued Hampton Creek in late 2014 for false advertising, saying Just Mayo was not really mayonnaise since it doesn't have eggs.
After facing a backlash by Just Mayo supporters, Unilever dropped the suit.
A couple months later, the Association for Dressings and Sauces contacted the FDA to follow up on its previously expressed concern that Just Mayo was violating the federal standard for mayonnaise. The FDA had already contacted Hampton Creek after the group's previous complaint, but said it couldn't provide details.
In a statement, the Association for Dressings and Sauces said one of its goals is to uphold federal standards in the dressings and sauces industry, which were established to protect consumers. It said it monitors product labels for accuracy as part of its goals.
A Unilever representative declined to comment. A representative for the FDA said the agency had nothing to add.
After Unilever dropped its lawsuit, emails show the association persisted in its campaign to bring law and order to the condiments aisle and contacted the FDA at least three more times.
Then in August, the FDA made its issues with Hampton Creek public in a warning letter to the company.
Showing its own backroom muscle, Hampton Creek retained a lawyer who formerly worked at the FDA who helped resolve the matter. Just Mayo's label was adjusted to make clear it does not have eggs. But it got to keep its name, and may have even gained a fan.
"After listening to your story, I may just up your sales by one jar during my next Costco visit and give your mayo alternative a test drive," an FDA official wrote to the company.
In a statement, Hampton Creek said its resolution with the FDA reaffirmed its belief that government and private sector can work together.
And in February, Unilever introduced its own eggless spread under the Hellmann's banner, and gave it an appropriate name: "Carefully Crafted Dressing and Sandwich Spread."
Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi