Yesterday's News: McDonald's Fish Wrapped In MSC's Blue

McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish wrappers will carry the blue label of the Marine Stewardship Council, indicating that the wild-caught Alaska pollock the fast-food chain sells in its 14,000 outlets in the U.S. are being harvested in an environmentally sound manner. Fish McBites rolling out next month will also be wrapped in the packaging.

“We’re extremely proud of the fact that this decision ensures our customers will continue to enjoy the same great taste and high quality of our fish with the additional assurance that the fish they are buying can be traced back to a fishery that meets MSC’s strict sustainability standard,” says Dan Gorsky, SVP of U.S. supply chain and sustainability, in a release. 

“Through this partnership,” says MSC CEO Rupert Howes, “millions of McDonald’s U.S. customers each day have an opportunity to recognize and reward sustainable fishing practices that not only preserve fish stocks, but support seafood industry livelihoods and communities that depend on fishing."

Alaska fisherman Kenny Longaker is the subject of a profile on McDonald’s website, and also appears in a print ad. In a 1:34 video posted to YouTube last week, Longaker says, “I’ve never seen an ecosystem that’s anything like [Alaska’s] Bering Sea. You have the whole Pacific Ocean that flushes all these nutrients to the fisheries….You take care of the ocean, and the ocean takes care of you.”

Specifically, the MSC seal certifies that the fisheries have been assessed by independent scientists against three core principles: the health of the fish stock, the impact of the fishery on the ecosystem and the management system that oversees the fishery.

“Restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Carl’s Jr. have recently declared their dedication to more conscientious food-sourcing strategies, shunning pork originating in gestation crates, touting their use of cage-free eggs and cutting ties with factory farms linked to animal abuse,” Tiffany Hsu points out in the Los Angeles Times. And L.A. favorite, In-N-Out, severed its ties last August with a California slaughterhouse accused of abusing cows.

“The effort is a big coup for the sustainability community,” Rachel Tepper writes in Huffington Post, citing the size of McDonald’s while also pointing out the chain's 7,000 European locations have been serving MSC-certified fish since October 2011.

What’s not to like about the announcement? 

“As I’ve reported in the past, many fisheries scientists are skeptical about the value of the Marine Stewardship Council’s stamp of approval,” writes David Jolly in the New York Times’ “Green” blog. Among other things, he cites its controversial certification of fish such as New Zealand hoki, which McDonald’s uses in some filet sandwiches outside the U.S. 

Jolly also reports that although the details of the deal were not disclosed, a spokesman for the MSC says it receives a 0.5% licensing fee on wholesale fish sales for use of the label. “McDonald’s sold more than 200 million Filet-O-Fish sandwiches last year in the U.S. alone, so the deal will probably work out to be a substantial windfall for the organization,” Jolly writes.

Susie Cagle, writing for the environmental blog “Grist,” says that “Alaska pollock is not considered a ‘best choice’ on the respected Seafood Watch list put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium; rather, it’s lumped into the middle ‘good alternative’ category.” 

And although the pollock fishermen use specially designed nets, they still mess up the sea floor. And Chinook salmon wind up in the nets. And Steller sea lions and Northern fur seals like pollock, too, and there’s less of it for them. 

“Even presuming Alaska pollock is a ‘good alternative,’ there’s still the matter of, you know, everything else McDonald’s does, from serving antibiotic-laden meats to leading the fast-food industrial complex,” Cagle concludes.

The Fast Company “Co.Exist” blog has its nitpicks, too –- such as “the company still has a long way to go on its beef sustainability” and, like Coca-Cola’s obesity campaign, “when your brand is based around something unhealthy or environmentally unsustainable, there’s only so much you can do.” 

But all in all, Ariel Schwartz concludes that the “move should be celebrated” and “is actually a big deal simply because of the company’s size.”

“When a company like McDonald’s does this, suppliers around the world are watching, and they will take note,” Kerry Coughlin, MSC regional director of the Americas, tells Schwartz. “We do expect this to have an impact.”

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