Controversy surrounds Mast Brothers, an artisanal, “bean-to-bar” chocolate maker in Brooklyn. Although Mast Brothers is today (and has been since 2009) a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, it didn’t exactly start that way: in its first two years, most or all Mast Brothers chocolate was made from melted Valrhona chocolate, even as Mast Brothers cultivated a bean-to-bar image. In other words, at least for its first two years in business, Mast Brothers may have misrepresented itself as a bean-to-bar chocolate maker. This presents an interesting ethical question: Did Mast Brothers act wrongfully in cultivating an origin story that may be at odds with its actual origins? Anglo-American commercial law draws a distinction between material misrepresentations (which are legally wrongful and grounds for a disappointed purchaser to recover) and immaterial misrepresentations (which are legally innocuous and not grounds for recovery). Very roughly, material misrepresentations are misrepresentations about the product, its features, or its attributes; immaterial misrepresentations are misrepresentations about things surrounding the product (for example, beliefs and attitudes about the product: “kids just love it!”). To the extent that settled law is a rough but reliable guide to widely-held moral intuitions, an interesting question is whether Mast Brothers’ origin story, if it is a misrepresentation, is material or immaterial. This piece could be used in the classroom to pursue what sorts of disclosures sellers owe (and don’t owe) to buyers and the relationship between legal standards and ethical norms. >>>
LINK: The scandal over Brooklyn’s small-batch artisanal chocolate factory, explained (by Libby Nelson for Vox)
The revelations are unlikely to have much effect on the Mast Brothers’ business today. Since 2009, they really have made most of their chocolate from scratch.
But the story is resonating because the Brooklyn chocolate company has become the quintessential stereotype of the artisanal food movement. Even before the Mast Brothers were accused of selling repackaged European chocolate, chocolate experts were arguing that they were all hype and no substance.
The argument over Mast Brothers’ chocolate isn’t just about the origin of their chocolate — it’s about their origin story itself. More broadly, it’s about whether it matters if the stories you’re buying along with your overpriced artisanal food are really true, and how much that matters.
What do you think?