McDonald’s Joins Sustainable Seafood Bandwagon

With the support of the Marine Stewardship Council, 100 million Filet-O-Fish now come with seal of approval.
(Photo: McDonald's).
Oct 20, 2011· 1 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

On its surface the idea that McDonald’s may be among the leaders in encouraging sustainable fisheries sounds far-fetched.

It sounds as implausible as BP encouraging solar panels, or Humvee rolling out a mini-electric version, or Senator James Inhofe railing from the same stage as Bill McKibben against climate change.

Yet the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich sold across Europe now comes with a seal of approval (actually a big blue check mark) from none other than the Marine Stewardship Council, the British watchdog group that helps to ensure fish were caught in a sustainable way.

On initial blush it sounds like some kind of hoax or elaborate greenwashing. Given that it’s McDonald’s, an international corporate food chain that has long put profits ahead of health or environmental protection (see Super Size Me), it’s hard not for that to be your first inclination.

But deeper investigation suggests the company is at least trying to do the right thing for the ocean as well as for its customers and its own bottom-line.

The numbers are not insignificant: Europe-wide, the chain sells more than 100 million fish sandwiches. That’s a lot of fish plucked from the sea. Yet the MSC insists that the four varieties of fish used in McDonald’s sandwiches are all coming from fisheries that it has given the thumbs-up.

The bigger argument among environmentalists doesn’t seem to be whether McDonald’s is doing the thing or not but whether the MSC is being strict enough in its own certification demands.

Greenpeace, for one, worries that the MSC may certify some fishing done by bottom trawling, a no-no with many ocean experts. The location of where a fish is caught is also important, and the MSC, says Greenpeace, sometimes gives blanket approvals to a species rather than judge its health region by region.

The Marine Stewardship Council (a grantee of the Skoll Foundation, a sister enterprise to TakePart) insists its certification is working well. It can point to hard evidence that its efforts have helped fend off total collapse of some fisheries, avoiding a situation where so much fish has been caught that breeding can no longer take place, leaving the sea barren. MSC spokeswoman Kate Wilcox says the standards it sets are designed to benefit both the fishing industry and the environment.

Like Walmart before it, which has gotten some good green cred in recent years, McDonalds’ may be seeing the green light in part because doing so can also be good for the bottom line.

As the Ecocentric blog suggests, “Big Food is starting to realize that unless it starts serving sustainable products, it might find itself without a supply chain in the future.”