Hankering for a Filet-O-Fish? Cross the pond to Europe this fall, and you can nod your cap to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) for partnering with McDonald’s. Starting in October, the 7,000 McDonald’s across 39 countries that serve 13 million customers daily will have the option to nosh on a locally named fish sandwich that is MSC-certified.
MSC and McDonald’s made the announcement last week on Worlds Ocean Day, a day to remind pescatarians and all omnivores that anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the world’s fish stocks are near depletion. Wrappers bearing MSC’s logo will remind McDonald’s customers of the current state of global fisheries. In fact, McDonald’s will be the first food retailer in Europe to have any packaging with the MSC seal (no pun intended) of approval.
So what exactly does the MSC moniker mean? It depends who you ask. McDonald’s has won a fair share of plaudits for its work on sourcing sustainably-sourced fish. In 2009, McDonald’s Senior Director of Worldwide Supply Chain Gary Johnson, along with his company, won a Seafood Choices Alliance award for its work. Much of the fish sourced for Filet-O-Fish sandwiches comes from pollack fished from the Alaskan and Russian Bering Sea. Several years ago Johnson saw the threats to McDonald’s from diminished fisheries around the world, and hence steered fish sourcing far up north. With the MSC label, McDonald’s joins companies like Whole Foods, Costco, Walmart, and Kroger that are taking a more responsible approach towards the sourcing of fish.
Or are they?
Not so fast, says Food & Water Watch, another NGO. The Washington, DC-based group alleges that the MSC label is more of a marketing label, not an eco-label. Food & Water Watch claims that several fisheries carrying the MSC label are far from sustainable, and in fact, the label may contribute to a decline in the number of pollack in one large Alaska fishery. The organization also accuses MSC of usurping local government regulation, with the result that local indigenous populations, wildlife, and local fish stocks are negatively affected. As for the MSC Filet-O-Fish designation, Food & Water Watch’s European office’s assessment is especially harsh. According to Executive Director Wenonah Hauter, New Zealand hoki, which comes from a fishery beset my many problems including local violations, is the source of most Filet-O-Fish sandwiches in Europe. In sum, Food & Water watch claims that MSC is merely a “pay-to-play” scheme; the more fisheries gain an MSC label, the more revenues the fishery reaps, meanwhile small fisheries that source responsibly and sustainably but do not have the resources to pay the fees gain no seal of approval at all.
NGO turf war, professional jealousy, environmental responsibility, or greenwashing? It depends who you believe and what the hard data shows. If the MSC is raising awareness about our global fisheries’ delicate balance, that alone cannot be a bad trend. Food & Water Watch is right that a label is not enough to judge the safety and responsibility of a food product, and they are right--no guide is perfect, either, including their own. The Monterey Bay’s Aquarium Seafood Watch is the best fish guide by far for concerned consumers.
One trend is clear: more NGOs and companies will join forces when tackling similar issues like the sustainably-fished-or-not Filet-O-Fish.
As for indulging in a Filet-O-Fish while on a European holiday, why would you bother when you can have Croatian sardines, Spanish anchovies, or a Marseilles bouillabaisse?
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.