Fish at Lent? McDonald’s come to the Fête with Fishbites!

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Today is Mardi Gras (Fat or Shrove Tuesday), the day when those of us who are Catholic-ally inclined, eat and eat and eat, before partaking in the austerity of Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday (which is tomorrow -13th February), and lasts for just over six weeks ending on Easter Sunday.

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Lent is a time of penance and abstinence. For me this year Lent means giving up the my friends wine and beer; for our pontiff it looks like it means forgoing the papacy; however for most Lent means forgoing meat, and eating fish.

I learned today that McDonald’s launched their newest fish product ‘fish Mcbites’ at a McDonald’s branch near Texas Christian University, which according to the Illinois ePeriodical Belle News:

“…May strengthen the impression that it [fishbites] is aimed at the faithful who have denied themselves the pleasure of meat.”

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McDonald’s Fishbites

Apart from the callousness of launching a new fastfood product at a time of solemn observance and forbearance, the launch of a new fish product that will undoubtedly go global in due course has started conversations, many of them starting from a sourcing and sustainability perspective, and then moving on to distribution.

Where will the fish (for the McBites) come from? Who will supply it?

It seems that McDonald’s is tight lipped with the answers. However a little media ‘fossicking’ has enabled a little illumination at least…

On Jan 31 in a blog post I referenced a McDonald’s USA press release that heralded the The beginning of a beautiful friendship:

“In recognition of its ten year commitment to sustainable fishing practices, McDonald’s USA announced today it would become the first national restaurant chain to adopt the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue ecolabel on its fish packaging in restaurants nationwide.”

According to Undercurrent News the driver behind the public hand-holding of McDonald’s with MSC  is a textbook neo-liberal one.

Undercurrent newsTom Seaman (of Undercurrent News) speculates that the reason behind McDonald’s announcement that they are going to pay for use of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo, on its Filet-o-Fish sandwiches and Fish McBites is not so they can adhere to local sourcing policy at all (e.g. Alaskan Pollock) as we initially guessed was the motivation (see blog post:McDonald’s, Economic Sabotage and the Cynical MSC Certification: A Fairy Story); rather it is so McDonald’s can use Russian raw material, if the Russian fishery successfully concludes its MSC assessment.

In my blog post (McDonald’s, Economic Sabotage and the Cynical MSC Certification: A Fairy Story) I defended McDonald’s (Hawaii’s) decision to forego the use of New Zealand hoki as a result of a local sourcing policy

So what is really happening in McDonald’s USA and Hawaii with MSC certified Alaskan pollack and New Zealand hoki? Its easy… Corporate Responsibility and local commodity sourcing policy (where possible).”

I surmised that McDonald’s had simply instituted a policy of  sustainable sourcing and locally caught fish (in this case Alaskan Pollack) for their Filet-o-Fish sandwiches and Fish McBites.

The Undercurrent News article McDonald’s not ruling out return to Russian pollock (11 Feb 2013) asserts that the McDopnald’s partnership with MSC was not about corporate responsibility and sustainability at all… rather it is about bottom lines:

This has caused speculation in the pollock business that McDonald’s, far from being entirely driven by green credentials, is setting up for a return to using Russian pollock, with the Sea of Okhotsk portion of the fishery close to being MSC-certified.

In a statement sent to Undercurrent News, McDonald’s did not rule this out.

Our future use of Russian pollock depends on the outcome of the MSC certification process and future guidance from Sustainable Fisheries Partnership,” said a spokeswoman for McDonald’s.”

Tom Seaman quotes a source close to the Alaska industry who feels the move is more about…

“being able to source both Alaskan and Russian pollock under cover of the MSC logo than it is about caring about the MSC program per se…That will put pressure on the price point and drive down the cost of pollock for McDonald’s, which is the real end game here.”

“Take a look at who has been helping the Russians get through the MSC process and you will find large pollock buyers in Europe. So while the MSC will tout this as a big endorsement and McDonald’s will get credit among environmental NGOs for doing it, it is really about reducing the price paid to the Alaskan processors.”

Tom Seamon’s (secret) source feels that the possible certification of the Russian fishery devalues the MSC logo for Alaska producers, echoing comments made by John Sackton, publisher of Seafood.com.

“My own thought on Russian MSC pollock certification is that if it happens then the value of the MSC logo for the Alaskan pollock fishery falls to zero.”

“It basically changes from being a reward for a well-managed fishery to an environmental NGO market access tax. Since all pollock will now be treated in the market as being equally well managed, which we know they are not, then the MSC brand itself is also weakened in the process because it is no better than it’s most poorly managed fishery.”

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Mcdonald (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It would seem that at the end of the day the McDonald’s/MSC deal it is about “volume over quality”. This explains the ‘sayonara‘ to New Zealand hoki which with a yield of approximately 150kt annually, can hardly assert its mere presence, alongside Russian and Alsakan Pollack.

There are those who argue that the McDonald’s/MSC deal rather than raising the profile of MSC, actually degrades it. I think I am inclined to agree. According to Seamon’s (secret) source:

“The only incentive to stay with the MSC program for well managed fisheries will then be the threat of market denial and being replaced by less worthy fisheries simply because those fisheries are willing to pay the MSC market access tax.

I don’t know if I’d go this far. It is my firm belief that an MSC certified fishery is demonstrably more worthy of its improved market position, vis-a-vis other fisheries.

However I do note that the much of the recent criticism of MSC by eNGOs is based on a perception that fisheries are ‘buying‘ MSC certification one way or the other… Of course the are foolish and vexatious criticisms that lack substance.

Notwithstanding the integrity of the MSC brand, partnering up with McDonald’s could prove to be a decision worthy of regret in years to come. Of course I could be wrong as well…

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