If It’s Mainstream, It’s Not Artisan: Food Marketers Hijack Another Claim

If It's Mainstream, It's Not Artisan: Food Marketers Hijack Another Claim

See the word “artisan” and what comes to mind? Likely it’s a person hand making something—be it a quilt or a cracker, right? Seems simple enough. But in this age of food marketing claims, the artisan crafter is being undermined by big food.

It’s enough of a problem, says an Italian court, that it’s taking issue over the use of so-called ‘artisan’ produced corporate chips.

According to the court, two companies claimed their factory-made chips fell under the definition of artisanal because the chips are “hand-cooked and low in fat, made using artisan production methods,” Food Navigator reports.

“The packaging of one product implied it was cooked in extra virgin olive oil, when this was actually just one component.”

The ruling could set apart true artisan crafters from corporate embellishment.

“It may be a victory for all artisanal manufacturers if the principle is widely applied. The judges agreed that any prominent claim referring to manual processing are interpreted by consumers as reference to artisanal production,” Dr. Luca Bucchini, the managing director of Italy’s Hylobates Consulting, told Food Navigator, “the claim is misleading because the production is still in an industrial setting and with industrial procedures – even if partially manual.”

And like organic or local foods, interest in artisan foods—truly artisanal foods—is on the rise. Stroll through any farmers market and you’re likely to stumble on any number of stalls bursting with small-scale artisan crafted preserves, breads, cheeses, yogurts, pickles.

Mintel reports that, at least in Europe, consumers are willing to pay more for small-batch and hand-made artisan products. More than 25 percent of Italians are already supporting artisan producers by paying more, as are 17 percent of French, 16 percent of Germans, and 15 percent in Spain.

While the U.S. has other definitions piling up on its plate in need of regulation, like the term “natural”, artisan-crafted goods may soon become worthy of certifying here as well, as interest grows in small-scale producers and products, particularly in the wake of such foodborne illness outbreaks like Chipotle, poster-restaurant for local and “quality” ingredients, is experiencing.

Artisan is misused by major food companies all the time. Is anything Domino’s Pizza makes truly artisan (let alone food)? In 2011, the company began to claim that some of its pizzas were ‘artisan’ because they veered from the norm, featuring goat cheese or Tuscan salami instead. That same year, Wendy’s also launched an “artisan” line of egg sandwiches. Should the consumer ignore the fact that those eggs came from millions of hens crowded into tiny cages so small the hens can’t even stretch her wings?

For the consumer still struggling to make sense of food labels, shopping continues to be an arduous task. But we can take cues from some obvious evidence: Is the ‘artisan’ product in a supermarket aisle alongside brands like General Mills, Kraft, or Coca-Cola? Does it actually say the word “artisan” on the product packaging? Are there other label claims like “natural” or “fresh” or “added fiber”?  Does it come in a variety of flavors or styles? Then, chances are, it’s not the artisan products you’re looking for.

Instead, take a stroll through a farmers market where you’ll be hard-pressed to find any label on the artisan preserves, bread, or yogurt humbly positioned next to seasonal fruits and vegetables. Visit a small bakery, or local cheese shop and inquire about the products being sold. Where are they made? Who is making them? Head out on a wine tour and stock up on selections from a small-scale winery where the seller is also the vintner.

Artisan, like real food, follows author Michael Pollan’s sage advice: it’s something your grandparents would recognize as food. And if it’s made in a plant, don’t eat it. No matter what the label claims.

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Artisanal bread image via Shutterstock

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.