McDonald's Now Serves Certifiably Sustainable Fish, But Does It Matter?

It’s a big move for the fast food giant and for the sustainable fish industry, but does it change McDonald’s impact?

When you’re McDonald’s, the bastion of junk food and big agriculture, it can’t be easy to convince consumers that you’re a sustainable influence on the food industry. And yet, the home of Ronald McDonald keeps trying, with big pushes to reduce animal cruelty in their supply chain and advertisements highlighting the individuals who produce McDonald’s food items. (See? They have a human face.)

McDonald’s latest attempt at producing more sustainable food comes in the form of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for its U.S. supply chain—a signal that the company sources fish from suppliers that follow strict MSC standards for ecosystem impact, management, and health of fish stock. In this case, the fast food chain is using wild-caught Alaska Pollock for its new Fish McBites (little balls of fried fish) and its Filet-O-Fish sandwich. McDonald’s achieved MSC certification for fish served in its European restaurants in 2011.

MSC has its critics—the independent organization has certified controversial fisheries that some people view as unsustainable—but it is well-respected. And McDonald’s move is actually a big deal simply because of the company’s size (there are 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. alone). "When a company like McDonald’s does this, suppliers around the world are watching, and they will take note," says Kerry Coughlin, MSC regional director of the Americas. "We do expect this to have an impact."

McDonald’s move should be celebrated, but the company still has a long way to go on its beef sustainability. In a 2012 interview with Bloomberg’s Clean Energy & Carbon Brief, McDonald’s vice president of sustainability Bob Langert admitted: "Can we say we’re buying any sustainable beef today? No, we can’t. Could we be buying sustainable beef? We might be. What I mean by that is that there are no standards, measures, accountability, and traceability to make those claims today."

That brings us to the larger McDonald’s quandary. McDonald’s can’t say that it’s buying sustainable beef because of its scale, but it can’t exactly remove beef from the menu without destroying the core of its identity. The fish business, big as it may be, will never overtake McDonald’s burgers.

It’s a similar problem to the one that Coke currently faces. The company is pushing out commercials talking about its many attempts to quell childhood obesity, and yet its flagship product is a sugary, calorie-filled beverage. When your brand is based around something unhealthy or environmentally unsustainable, there’s only so much you can do.

Add New Comment


  • alan

    The world would be better off without McDonalds. The people who work there (not happily,)) would find a better jobs in the space left by McDondals. Just die, mr McD! Just die. 

  • MyLoudSpeakerDotCa

    In a branding perspective, it hardly matters.  McDonalds is - and always will be - greasy fast food. But, I guess good on them for trying. The "Ask Questions" campaign was also really bold - got to respect the effort they're putting into it.

  • Peter G

    I am not understanding how the author reaches her conclusion in the second last paragraph.

    McDonald's did not say they are not buying sustainable beef because of their scale; they are not buying sustainable beef because of the lack of standards, measures, accountability, and traceability.

    The solution then is to develop a sustainability program with standards, measures, accountability, and traceability.

  • foodorigins

    I'm with Peter, the issue is traceability, not "scale" as the author suggests. Many buyers—McDonald's included—would like more visibility into the beef supply chain, but it's just not structured in a way that lends itself to transparency. Once we make some progress on traceability, McDonald's can drive down sustainability standards and track progress on them. 

  • Norm S

    Coke contains no sugar. The sweetener is high fructose corm syrup which is much worse than sugar.

  • Dgcasares

    Love the filet-o-fish  glad to hear what mcdonalds is doing but I hate paying $3.50 for a sandwich that is the same size a a cheeseurger.

  • Johnny Appleseed

    For those of you who wish to defend the fast food industry, keep in mind that if it weren't for their market demand for meat and fish, we wouldn't have a need for "pink slime" and other fillers to be used in our food - not to mention growth hormones and genetically altered foods.

    I doubt that we will ever see a study that explains why the incidence of cancer in this country has grown exponentially over the past 3 decades.Anyone have an hypothesis?

    If we had more truth in advertising, none of this would be an issue today.

  • Jim M

    Did anybody else notice that the article dealt with the fish in McDonald's in the UK not the US and that it ran in 2011.

  • Alan Elster

    The article is about the US food supply chain and it says so. It mentions that McD's in Europe was already certified in 2011 for the fish sandwich. The article also refers to events in 2012 so it could NOT have run in 2011.

  • iluvjunkfood

    If you don't like it don't eat there, but I like the fish the way it is, and Wendys burgers are good, but the fries are terrible, and you just need to keep all your uppity noses out of our food, you get fat and unhealthy if you eat to much of anything, all the fast food restaurants do not have employees standing out on the street with guns dragging your ass in, so eat what you want and the goverment needs to find something else to do besides being up everyones buttttt!

  • Think

    And your the person that makes clearing rainforest and raising beef possible.  Cutting chicken beaks off, and shoving way to many in small cages, gmo foods, etc, etc.  And my guess is you need to educate yourself, but its my guess that you could care less what you put in your body, where it came from, how it got to you, and the side effects from it all.

  • John Donovan

    I think the characterization of McDonald's as the "bastion of junk food" is a bit harsh.  Sure, their products are not the healthiest food to put into your body.  However, they do serve actual food, not candy and potato chips.  A burger and fries is the modern spin on meat and potatoes.  Not the healthiest, but far from junk food.

  • Hackneyed

    No it isn't. McDonald's IS junk food. 

    The foods you mention in your second sentence aren't food, they are sweets and snacks, i.e. a different category altogether. 

    And meat and potatoes did not have HFCS and enough chemicals to make you day-glo added to it.

  • Gregory_williams29

    Ronald McDonald keeps trying, with big pushes to reduce animal cruelty in their supply chain   well then they should close there doors because as long as they keep selling burgers, fish sandwiches the animals need to lie to supply food...thats the altamet cruelty....then lets go a little further plants feel pain when they are cut down or pulled from the gowned...so there goes the vegitarian food line.....so whats left....we all stave..but thats cuelty to humans...so where does it stop

  • Scott Eno

    If I want a happy 10 year old we eat at McDonald's . If we want a well balanced meal we eat at home.

  • WHAT

    The fish sandwiches sucked before and they suck now.

    Because its fast food.

    All of these comments about how the items are being taken off are superfluous. If you went to ANY fast food restaurant solely because of the taste, then you are lying or stupid.