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Monday, March 28, 2011

MSC label on cat food: I can haz sustainable fisheries?

This just happened

Mars Petcare, makers of legendary cat foods Whiskas and Sheba (which Jake assures me are both equally delicious), recently announced that some types of their catfoods in certain European countries will now bear the mark of the Marine Stewardship Council.

Good news, cats! Now you can stop eating songbirds!
Cat collage courtesy of someone with too much time on their hands, via Wikimedia Commons

Mars has learned first-hand the marketing importance of sustainable sourcing, or at least keeping an appearance thereof - just one year ago, they were being raked over the coals for their "Blue Fin Tuna Flavor" line of cat food. While it seems that no blue fin tuna was actually to be found in this line, the optics were still incredibly, incredibly bad. Not quite as bad as Burger King's ill-fated "Flavors of the IUCN Red List" menu of '08, of course, but still pretty bad. (Note to Burger King's lawyers - that was a joke). 

So, is the MSC label on cat food a good development, or egregious greenwashing of an inherently unsustainable use of marine resources? I'd argue that it's both, at the same time. I would argue that catching millions of tons of wild forage fish to feed domestic cats is an indefensibly terrible use of our oceans that would have no place in a human society that had a truly 'sustainable' relationship with its host ecosystems.

However, I'm also aware that in Canada alone there are roughly 1 million old ladies who own 30+ cats each, and that the only way those ladies are giving up their cats is if they are pried from their cold, dead hands (and indeed, that's how it usually works out).

So, cats aren't going away anytime soon. Assuming that we wish to keep feeding them, then it would be best to source their feed from better sources rather than worse, I guess...which would mean that the MSC logo on cat food is better than nothing at all...

And now you'll have to forgive me, because that's as positive as I can force myself to be about this.


  1. If MSC really did imply "better sources", then I would agree with you. But if/since the logo really is just a giant greenwash in many cases, as with longline swordfish, then no. Funny, imagine if those millions of cats were caught as bycatch in the longline swordfish fishery, people would make a much bigger fuss than about the loss of thousands of sharks and turtles.

  2. Yeah, you got me - I was being lazy when I wrote "better sources". MSC certification doesn't mean that a fishery is 'better' than a non-certified one, but that's what I wrote and for that I apologize.

    However, there is a very important thing that MSC certification does do, and does well: it gives the buyer a relatively high degree of assurance in the identity and traceability of that product. To me, this is especially important when fish products are used as ingredients in a highly-processed product, such as cat food.

    The traceability requirements of MSC are solid, as even some of MSC's more notable critics have allowed. From an article written by a group of researchers that include frequent MSC critics Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly: "Of all the sustainable seafood initiatives the MSC offers the best model of traceability in the form of chain of custody standards..."

    So, this is what I had in mind when I wrote 'better': by the time a highly-processed fish product appears in its final glitzy packaging as cat food or whatever, it has been transported and altered and handled and who knows what else, by who knows how many different firms. MSC certification on a bag of cat food does not necessarily mean that the fisheries that supplied the raw materials are automatically 'better' than other fisheries, but at the very least it does announce that those raw materials can be traced back through the chain of custody to their origins.

    To me, that by itself is a substantial improvement over the norm, in which the fish meal/fish oil used in things like cat food might as well have come from an enormous black box from the consumer's perspective.

  3. And re: cats as bycatch vs. turtles and sharks. I think that PETA had this idea a while back with their 'sea kitten' campaign...