This February will be remembered as the month of perhaps the greatest culinary advancement in recent memory. The Chicken McNugget has transformed into the Fish McBite.
The evolution of this veritable McSurf and McTurf is simply the next step in ambiguously shaped fast food creations. Alongside this McVention is a label that reads “Certified Sustainable Seafood,” something almost as laughable as Coca-Cola fighting obesity. McDonald’s foray into sustainability, along with those of other large corporations like Wal-Mart, Target and Costco, is a startling commercialization and distortion of ecological sustainability and justice of the food system.
The blue “Certified Sustainable Seafood” logo of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has become increasingly popular. You can find it throughout any supermarket. The MSC logo makes up $3 billion, or 8 percent, of the global seafood industry, which in turn has resulted in almost $10 million in licensing revenue of the MSC sustainable logo.
However, the accuracy and objectivity of the MSC is unconvincing. Fisheries spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire outside auditors to evaluate their adherence to MSC standards. Over 200 have been certified (while only 10 have been rejected).
In 2006, Wal-Mart partnered with the MSC, and since then the MSC has dramatically increased its certifications and received millions in grants from Wal-Mart.
Furthermore, fisheries of Antarctic Toothfish, Canadian Swordfish and other species have been MSC-certified despite strong opposition from the scientific community.
McDonald’s bet on balls of fried Alaskan Pollock that are labeled as sustainable seeks to capture consumers that now demand “healthier” options. However, “sustainable” and “healthy” are not connected, especially when (Mc)sustainability is a meaningless moniker.
These buzzwords are the result of intense advertising, market share and consumer research. These labels are moneymakers for large corporations that sell “sustainable” products and for commercial groups that deem certain products “sustainable.” An NPR survey found that 80 percent of Americans felt that sustainable seafood was important or very important. Translation: profits for companies that can fill that niche.
The failure of the Food and Drug Administration and governments around the world to establish standards of sustainable seafood has led to this startling commercialization by corporations and commercial labeling groups. While the nutritional labeling and definition of organic by the FDA and the Department of Agriculture is mind-numbingly complicated, the sheer lack of regulation of fisheries has led to catastrophic overfishing, toxic fish (a recent study showed that 84 percent of fish have unsafe levels of mercury) and the mislabeling of one-third of all fish sold in the U.S.
McDonalds boasts that with its Fish McBites, “You’ll be hooked on this fish.” While it is reassuring that McDonalds seems to acknowledge the addictive nature of many of its products, it, along with other corporations, are using the veneer of sustainable, organic and other foodie buzzwords in an attempt to mask the unsustainable realities of their products.
Labeling companies like the MSC are equally complicit in this fraud, as they have the potential to profit in the tens of millions of dollars from labeling. The “sustainable” Fish McBite, like it’s McNugget ancestor, is a perversion of the food system and the conception of sustainability.
Samuel Mendelson is a sophomore in the School of International Service.