There is no doubt that artisan foods are popular with and increasingly attractive to consumers. After all who can resist the temptation of pastries, chocolates and cheeses carefully prepared with the skill and passion of the artisan and containing the finest natural ingredients? However, it begs the question: when can products be legitimately described as "artisan", "farmhouse", "traditional" or in similar terms?

This answer to this question is not made easier by the fact that there is no explicit legal definition of such terms in the context of claims regarding food.

The law requires a more holistic approach to be taken by considering whether the claim is likely to be misleading to consumers taking into account the characteristics of the product and the context in which the claim is made. Article 7 of the EU Food Information Regulation 1169/2011 is clear that food information should not be misleading, particularly as to the characteristics of the food including its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production.

This is not a new dilemma – the FSA first published Guidance on the use of " Fresh, Pure, Natural etc " back in 2002, and more detailed guidance was published by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland relating to the use of claims such as "artisan", "farmhouse", "traditional" and "natural" in May 2015. These provide some assistance in offering a more objective approach, but the issue is far from resolved, a point reiterated by two recent Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rulings following complaints made about claims made in adverts by Iceland Foods Ltd (Iceland) and EAT Ltd.

The complaint against Iceland concerned a press advert for "freshly baked artisan bread" and an online video showing preparation of the dough by hand, in the setting of a windmill, which was described as consisting of only natural ingredients. The adverts were challenged on a number of grounds which included whether the use of "artisan" and the depiction of the baking process was misleading given that the product was mass produced using industrial techniques.

In relation to the press advert, the ASA considered that consumers were likely to understand that the product would be produced on an industrial scale and, in the overall context of the advert, "artisan" was likely to be understood as an "artisan –style" or a premium frozen product rather than made by hand by the national frozen food retailer. The complaint was not therefore upheld in relation to this specific issue.  

However, in relation to the online advert, the complaint was upheld on the basis that the overall presentation of the advert suggested that the featured products were produced by hand which was, in fact, not the case.

The ASA also considered a complaint regarding "sourdough toasties" advertised by EAT. The claim "sourdough" was challenged on the basis that the bread was not made from traditional sourdough ingredients and using the traditional method. The complaint was not upheld. The ASA considered that in the absence of a legal definition of "sourdough", it would be interpreted as meaning the bread containing sufficient amounts of sourdough to distinguish it from non-sourdough products and the presence of a small amount of commercial yeast would not affect a consumer's perception of the product. The ASA also considered that calling the product "Sourdough" did not infer that the product was made from traditional methods such as kneading entirely by hand.

This is of course not an issue isolated to the UK – the regional administrative court in Lazio, Italy also affirmed rulings against two Italian crisp manufacturers for claims that their products were hand-cooked, low in fat and made using artisan production techniques. Again, Italy has no legal definition of what an artisan food actually is.

Whilst these rulings do not provide any guidance as to when claims such as "artisan" can be used, they do illustrate the general approach to be taken when considering making such claims. Put simply, what impression does the claim create and is it likely to be misleading to consumers? The issue, as with many marketing claims, is that this creates uncertainty as one person's perception may not be the same as others.

Until EU-wide guidance becomes available, food businesses are advised to pay heed to the guidance that is available, and consider the overall impression of their marketing and food labels, bearing in mind the product's target market – most of these products are marketed at the reasonably well-heeled, intelligent adult consumer, but as the demand for such products grows, the target market will inevitably broaden.