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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.