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July 5th, 2011

Don’t Gimme That Filet-O-Fish!

A few of us here blinked our eyes a few times when we saw the headline, “McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish to carry MSC eco-label.” Did McDonald’s just earn itself an eco-label in Europe? Maybe it was the reputation of the fast food giant that fueled our doubt. But another reason behind our skepticism is the questionable claims behind the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label.

McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish is made with New Zealand hoki — a fish that many believe should not have been certified by MSC. This particular fishery, in fact, has previously violated that country’s Fisheries Act. Because of the hoki’s troubled history, its certification by MSC has been controversial. MSC’s decision to certify the fishery that supplies McDonald’s’ with their hoki is a prime example of how eco-labels are not always what they seem.

Food & Water Watch’s Marie Logan was invited by the European Parliament to Brussels to give a presentation at a public hearing there — sponsored by the European People’s Party — about the labeling of fish products in Europe and misconceptions associated with eco-labels. Marie pointed out that seafood certification is tricky because a program like MSC makes a profit from the certified fish that are sold. Ultimately, certification programs are trying to promote their own brand and they don’t always meet consumer expectations for what is sustainable. Be sure to check out the report that Food & Water release last year called, “Decoding Seafood Eco-Labels.”

In Europe, consumers have high expectations. According to a survey of European consumers conducted by Seafood Choices Alliances, about 95 percent of respondents desired information to help them avoid bad seafood that damages the environment. MSC’s nod of sustainability to McDonald’s’s Filet-O-Fish falls far short of those expectations.

Certification programs should be transparent and represent a clearly defined set of standards. The information they provide to consumers for guidance should come from independent sources free from the financial interests that are associated with marketing seafood. Any label that tells consumers that a fish product is “sustainable,” “organic,” “eco-friendly” or “environmentally responsible” should be able to support such claims with more than just a sticker.

If McDonald’s and MSC really wanted the Filet-O-Fish to be sustainably sourced, they would clearly define sustainability according to five basic principles:

1.    Ecological impact: Wild fish should be at healthy population levels, and the fishery should not damage marine habitat or adversely affect other species. Farmed fish production must not pollute or spread disease.

2.    Social impact: Labor standards must be fair, working conditions should be safe and the economic, health, and safety impacts on surrounding communities must be considered.

3.    Sustainable seafood should encourage a diversified seafood economy and avoid heavy marketing of a few popular species. It is important that people are able to purchase a wide variety of fish and shellfish options to benefit fishing communities, consumer health and ecological sustainability.

4.    Consider transport and distance of the product from the market. Eating local or regional seafood helps to limit fossil-fuel-consuming food miles.

5.    Seafood must not be farmed with dangerous antibiotics, drugs or chemicals and must not pose a contamination threat to consumers.

For now, forgive our lackluster response to MSC’s certification of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.

7 Comments on Don’t Gimme That Filet-O-Fish!

  1. Jon says:

    I am just surprised that the fish in the Filet O Fish is actually fished I thought it would have been 100% processed fish bits, 100% artificial to the bitter end.

  2. Fah Fah Fah says:

    Eh, (European) McDonald’s also received high scores from Fisk2Fork, and if you’re familiar with that organization, they aren’t frivolous with their prasie/approval. Interesting article, but I suspect that just seeing the name “McDonald’s” might have made a few knees jerk at Food & Water Watch. Keep up the excellent work though, I enjoy your reporting!


  3. MSC response:

    McDonald’s and the New Zealand hoki fishery are both examples of businesses leading the way in sustainability, helping transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis.

    The New Zealand hoki fishery is a sustainable and well managed fishery. Like all fisheries certified to the MSC standard, it has passed an independent, peer-reviewed and stakeholder-reviewed assessment that included over two years of detailed scientific analysis and stakeholder input. The effectiveness of the hoki fishery’s management was confirmed again two weeks ago when, following the latest annual stock assessments, the New Zealand fisheries and Aquaculture Minister announced that, thanks to significant catch reductions and responsible fisheries management, hoki stock levels are back up to target biomass. This success in fisheries management was also documented in a peer-reviewed science paper, published in 2009, ‘Rebuilding Global Fisheries’, which has just been awarded the 2011 Sustainability Science Award from the Ecological Society of America. New Zealand hoki ranked amongst the highest in the report for sustainable fisheries management.

    The MSC ecolabel is an assurance to consumers that the product can be traced to a sustainable and well-managed fishery. That assurance is backed by a rigorous, independent scientific certification process. Every fishery certified to the MSC standard must demonstrate that its operations ensure:

    – Sustainable fish stocks – the fishing activity must be at a level which is sustainable for the fish population, so that fishing can continue indefinitely and is not overexploiting the resources.

    – Minimising environmental impact – fishing operations should be managed to maintain the structure, productivity, function and diversity of the ecosystem on which the fishery depends.

    – Effectively managed – the fishery must meet all local, national and international laws and must have a management system in place to respond to changing circumstances and maintain sustainability.

    The MSC standard is an environmental standard which gives a good degree of certainty about the indefinite productivity of a fishery. It is deliberately focused on measurable ecological outcomes, for which there is a high degree of global scientific agreement.

    There are currently no internationally-agreed criteria for measuring established social standards that can be applied to a fishery, and no widely agreed method for tracking the carbon footprint of seafood from boat to plate. Adding more criteria would increase the cost of MSC assessment, which could become a barrier for fisheries to enter the programme, or add cost or reporting burdens for members of the supply chain. The MSC would need to secure agreement from a broad spectrum of stakeholders before altering the standard.

    MSC addressed the points raised in the Food and Water Watch report “De-coding Seafood Eco-labels” in a statement on our website:

    • rbindell says:

      The following response to MSC was contributed by Food & Water Watch Organizer Marie Logan:

      We welcome open debate so thank you for sharing your input. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the hoki fishery is, in fact, leading the way in terms of sustainability, as you have suggested.

      Food & Water Watch is far from being the only entity to critique Marine Stewardship Council’s certification of New Zealand hoki. A number of organizations and individuals, including Greenpeace International and several prominent marine biologists have questioned the sustainability of the fishery, both in terms of its unintentional bycatch of seabirds and fur seals, and in terms of its fluctuating stock status, which may be an indication of excessive fishing pressure.

      Even World Wildlife Fund New Zealand (whose parent organization, WWF, helped to found MSC in the late 1990s) had such serious concerns that their executive director appealed directly to the head of WWF International, stating, “If we (WWF NZ) are asked by the media, we will be forced to publicly criticize the process and possibly the outcomes…which will inevitably reflect badly on MSC.” (From Bob Burton’s Inside Spin, page 166. See an excerpt right here.)

      New Zealand’s Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society has criticized the certification since the beginning of the application process in 2001. As recently as November 2010, they reconfirmed their concern that the “hoki fishery is still killing too many fur seals.” In fact, hundreds are killed annually as a result of the trawls used in the commercial fishery.

      New Zealand’s fur seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the organization states, “It is deeply disappointing that the hoki fishery is still killing the greatest number of fur seals of any trawl fishery [in the country], despite being labeled a sustainable fishery.”

      At least one journalist suggested that this certification of New Zealand hoki may have been because, in 2001, the fledgling MSC “needed high-volume fisheries” to build its repertoire. (Bob Burton’s Inside Spin, page 164, See an excerpt right here.) This concern has been revived in a March 2011 copy of the Samudra Report, in which the author states that the MSC “is biased towards industrial-scale fisheries” and observes that “the increasing number of suspect seafood products bearing the MSC eco-label has raised questions about the organization’s commitment to its own standards.”

      The previous post states, “Like all fisheries certified to the MSC standard, [the New Zealand hoki] has passed an independent, peer-reviewed and stakeholder-reviewed assessment.”

      However, that independent third-party status has been questioned by such prominent marine biologists as Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly, who wrote in a September 2010 issue of Nature, “In our view, [Marine Stewardship Council’s] certification system creates a potential conflict of interest, because certifiers that leniently interpret existing criteria might expect to receive more work and profit from ongoing annual audits.”

      Food & Water Watch stands behind the findings in our November 2010 report, De-Coding Seafood Eco-Labels, and urges the federal government to introduce standards for eco-labeled seafood sold in the United States. Until then, private eco-labels may not be the most appropriate means to convey neutral and credible information about seafood.

  4. The MSC environmental standard requires bycatch levels to be low enough to be ecologically sustainable for the species’ population. Although New Zealand fur seals are a protected species, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation ( has classified them as not threatened. Populations are thought to be increasing, and bycatch levels have reduced due to management techniques put in place by the hoki fishery. Some small localised areas are being investigated further as not enough is known about the populations in those areas. Seabird bycatch levels have also decreased due to measures such as devices to keep the seabirds away from fishing gear and managing offal discharge to reduce the number of seabirds attracted. A risk assessment of the fishing impacts in 2011 found the amount of bycatch is not adversely impacting any of New Zealand’s seabird populations. For more information about the environmental impacts of the hoki fishery see the Ministry of Fisheries website.

    Regarding the suggestion from the September 2010 issue of Nature that certifiers might leniently interpret the MSC fisheries assessment criteria so they receive more work: the independence and scientific objectivity of the MSC assessment process is ensured by a number of built-in checks and balances. All evidence reviewed by the assessment team is open to stakeholder scrutiny; each scoring decision must be justified and peer reviewed by scientific experts. The certifier is required to address, in writing, any concerns raised by stakeholders. Objections can also be raised, and examined by an independent adjudicator, before the final decision is reached. The assessment procedure is therefore highly transparent and participatory and meets the FAO and ISEAL requirements for an effective fisheries standard and ecolabelling system. See MSC’s full response to the Nature article.

    We are happy to discuss any of these issues in more depth, please contact [email protected] for further information.

    • rbindell says:

      The following reply to MSC was contributed by Food & Water Watch Organizer Marie Logan:

      Thank you again for your response and for participating in an open dialogue. The fact that the New Zealand hoki fishery may be in better shape today does not negate the original point that the fishery was certified while these environmental problems were ongoing. Consumers have continued to purchase these certified, eco-labeled products over the past decade — during periods in which hundreds of seabirds and fur seals were being killed by the fishery’s capture method — and most did so unknowingly. We worry that MSC’s eco-label, and many private eco-labels labels such as those reviewed in De-Coding Seafood Eco-Labels, tend to obscure these facts from well-meaning consumers who otherwise would not patronize environmentally damaging fisheries.

      While the intent to promote positive change in seafood purchasing is commendable, those fisheries that have been awarded a seafood eco-label certification but have not yet made necessary ecological improvements may experience the “free rider” problem: a situation that occurs when the benefits and price premiums associated with a sustainability eco-label (and earned by those fisheries that are truly ecologically sustainable) allow the less-sustainable fisheries to “ride” on that image for the same benefits, without requiring that the fishery meet the required conditions immediately. As a result, the well-meaning consumer loses out.

      In regards to information offered by MSC on the fisheries assessment process, it is important to note that the costs included in an application are prohibitive to many. Costs of up to $100,000 for a five year certification have been reported for large fisheries such as Alaska salmon, and even a fraction of that cost would likely be cost-prohibitive to smaller scale fishermen seeking a label for their sustainable seafood. A recent article notes that even though “developing countries contribute to 70 percent of global marine capture” fisheries, they are represented as just 3 percent of MSC’s total certified seafood repertoire by tonnage. As a result, the article argues, “the MSC experience creates the impression that fish stocks are well managed in industrial, temperate-water fisheries, and ill managed in tropical marine fisheries.” In the long term, Food & Water Watch is concerned that this could result in the privatization of seafood regulation, whereby a fishery must be certified through a private company in order to sell its products or risk losing its market share to other labeled products. Meanwhile, challenging a proposed certification through the private MSC currently costs 5,000 British pounds ($8,040), which remains a hefty sum even after lowering costs from 15,000 pounds ($24,121) in August of last year.

      We thank the MSC for engaging in a dialogue about our concerns with eco-labeling, and look forward to continued discussion.

  5. The hoki stocks collapsed during the first 5 years of the initial certification. While this was happening the industry argued each year for the allowable take to be greater than the level set by the NZ Govt – while conservation groups Forest &Bird and WWF-NZ argued for faster reductions. The suggestion that the industry has managed the collapse and recovery well is just spin.

    Recertification was fraught – the objection by Forest &Bird & WWF-NZ failed because the fishery’s certification body got away with an incredible ‘slight of hand’. Various predictive indicators (PIs) were remanded to be rescored (downwards) by the Independent Adjudicator who was hearing the objection. The certification body did the downward rescoring for those PIs, but then rescored upwards 5 other PIs that had not been challenged. By a wonderful ‘coincidence’ this un-prompted rescoring upwards managed to balance out the downwards rescoring of the remanded PIs. This meant that the fishery was able to be recertified on the basis of just 0.01 of a score (ie the new score for principle 2 was 80.01 – a score of less than 80 for any of the three principles means a fishery can’t be certified).

    Following the hoki recertification the MSC undertook a major re-vamp of the certification methodology and the objections process. There can be little question that the mess around the hoki recertification and objection was a huge embarrassment to the MSC.

    Fur seals continue to be caught in the hoki fishery and the argument from the MSC that this is acceptable because the population is not at risk flies in the face of New Zealand’s Marine Mammal Protection legislation. Forest & Bird members and most NZers simply do not accept this attitude. MSC go on to say “A risk assessment of the fishing impacts in 2011 found the amount of bycatch is not adversely impacting any of New Zealand’s seabird populations”

    This statement is simply false.

    In fact the Risk Assessment clearly shows that New Zealand is failing very badly to protect our rich seabird fauna with 23,000-40,000 killed every year in NZ’s fisheries including 10,000 albatrosses. While we accept that the hoki fishery may be working towards reducing by-catch they need to do a much better job much more quickly. A reduction in fishing effort may have resulted in a slight reduction in seabird captures but the rate of capture in the middle depth trawl fisheries has increased. This is not good enough.

    Indeed one of the most at risk species specifically identified in the report is the endemic Wetland black petrel. Remnant populations breed on the West Coast of NZ’s South Island and feed offshore, overlapping with the Hoki fishery. This species is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. Although hoki trawlers are not the only culprit they caught the most Westland black petrels and the overall estimation of birds killed annually in this report -between 258 and 1203 – exceeds the level at which the species can sustain itself, and this doesn’t even include other mortality factors that may be occurring in other parts of the world.

    So effectively the current rate of seabird capture by fisheries, which include the hoki fishery, is driving this species towards extinction. It is very hard indeed to read the statement in this blog by the MSC that bycatch is not adversely impacting any of NZ’s seabird populations. Forest & Bird would suggest that they check the facts with other MSC stakeholders, such as the in-country NGO’s, before regurgitating self serving industry spin that everything is fine.

    Kevin Hackwell
    Advocacy Manager
    Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society of New Zealand
    (member of MSC Stakeholder Council)

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