01/29/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

McSustainable Seafood

McDonald's, one of America's largest buyers of fish, announced last week that all 'Fillet O'Fish' sandwiches and new 'Fish McBites' will be made from Marine Stewardship Council certified Pacific pollock. While retail chains like Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Target have recently introduced sustainable seafood programs, McDonald's is the first restaurant chain to use the MSC label. McDonald's has, in fact, been sourcing sustainable seafood for the past decade, but starting in February, every Fish McBite Happy Meal comes with a guarantee that you are making a responsible choice. But is a label enough?

MSC certification is to seafood what organic certification is to farming. Labels are good, but they are only one leg of the sustainability stool. For one, MSC certification is a money game. It costs a fishery up to $100,000 to be assessed, and MSC then receives additional royalties from companies who use the label (MSC will receive a portion of every sale of a Fillet O'Fish). The cost of certification is prohibitive for many smaller fishing communities, just as many small independent farmers are organic in practice but cannot afford to be certified organic. Scientists have further criticized MSC for certifying industrial fisheries and not holding these fisheries to strict enough environmental standards. Likewise, native Alaskan fishermen objected to the recent McDonald's announcement because of the high rates of king salmon bycatch associated with the Pacific pollock fishery. When a label fails to take into account the bigger picture, it's time to rethink how we set the bar for sustainable food.

While the MSC standard isn't perfect, when McDonald's takes up an ecolabel, it represents a symbolic shift in consumer awareness. McDonald's is still far from being a model of responsible food practices, but there's no denying the huge impact large corporations can have on creating a better food system. But just as there has been a push to move 'beyond organic' toward a more nuanced understanding of the social, economic, and environmental impact of our food choices, we need to move beyond MSC certification as well, toward a system that embraces the small family fisherman.

After all, sustainability has to be scalable if we want to really make change. We're reminded of our friend Taylor Mork, founder of Crop to Cup Coffee, who wants his fair trade, farmer-direct coffee beans to reach a wider audience on the shelves of Wal-Mart. This is different then giving the stamp of approval to industrial production: instead, the small farmer is able to access bigger and better markets. Just as we support the farm-to-table movement, small-scale fishing communities need to reach better markets as well. McSustainable seafood is a not a bad thing, but only a piece in a much larger puzzle.