McDonald's ocean rescue: Sea change or greenwash?

McDonald's Filet-O-Fish box with MSC label
Image caption Experts seem to think the little blue label can have a big impact

Think of your most ethical friends. The ones who order organic or fairtrade. Would they be seen in McDonald's?

Europe, and the UK in particular, is increasingly seen as a place where being greener is good business sense.

Campaigns by various organisations and celebrity chefs have raised awareness of sustainable food, and the latest company to sit up and take notice is the fast-food giant McDonald's.

From this month, all of McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwiches sold in Europe will now bear a label from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a British environmental watchdog, certifying that the fish used was caught in a sustainable way.

In plain English? That means 100 million fish sandwiches a year will be made with fish caught in ways that should not leave oceans desolate and marine life at risk.

And each one will carry a label on the box to tell us so - much like fairtrade-certified coffee, or beef from cattle raised on land that does not threaten the rainforest.

McDonald's says its vision is to go even further than this - and "to become one of the leaders in sustainability for our industry sector and for major industries within our supply chain, driving positive changes through our entire operations".

All the right buzzwords are there, but the move has caused controversy amongst environmental groups and ocean-watchers. Books like Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and films like Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me have not created an image of the fast food industry as one that cares, with McDonald's often portrayed, fairly or not, as one of the worst offenders.

Big Food

Cat Dorey, a fishing expert with Greenpeace, welcomes the move by McDonald's - though she warns there are some flaws within the MSC system.

She says a fishery - an area where a certain type of fish is caught - can get an MSC certificate, and so sell its fish to chains like McDonald's, while still using practices that are detrimental to the environment.

"In some areas a fishery could be performing well, in other areas a fishery could be under-performing and endangering the environment, yet still pass and get MSC certified," Ms Dorey says.

"Also, MSC will certify companies who use 'bottom trawling' - an instant no-no for us because it destroys the bed of the ocean."

But, despite these reservations, she warns against dismissing McDonald's efforts as mere "greenwash".

The four species of wild fish that are used in the Filet-O-Fish are now all traceable to four legal fisheries because of the new MSC certification process.

Image caption McDonald's will source some of its cod fom a sustainable Baltic fishery

They are:

Ms Dorey says: "There are so many illegal fisheries which destroy the environment and most people buy fish and don't have a clue where it is from. So what McDonald's is doing is a good thing."

So should scepticism be put aside and McDonald's move welcomed? After all, the so-called Big Food corporations have an enormous impact on the environment.

Joanna Trigg, the spokeswoman for McDonalds on this issue agrees that size matters. "McDonald's has a voice that is heard," she says.

"We touch millions of customers on a daily basis and want to use this influence to make a real difference… We are proud to have made real progress in keeping fish available and affordable across Europe."

Sustainable future

The environmental journalist Eben Harrel says in his leading blog Ecocentric that the change is down to good business sense rather than sudden conversion to green principles.

Image caption Greenpeace have held cod funerals to express concern at the risk to the species

"Big Food is starting to realise that unless it starts serving sustainable products it might find itself without a supply chain in the future," he writes.

Other, smaller food chains like the sandwich shop Pret A Manger, have long been using the labelling system to show that the fish in its sandwiches has been caught sustainably.

And the Marine Stewardship Council insist that its certification works. It says it can point to hard evidence that the scheme has helped fend off total collapse of some fisheries, avoiding a situation where so much fish has been caught that breeding can no longer take place, leaving the sea barren.

MSC spokeswoman Kate Wilcox says the standards it sets are designed to benefit both the fishing industry and the environment.

She says that if a fishery manages to qualify, then that reflects a "scientific certainty that the impact of the fishery on fish and the wider marine ecosystem is sustainable - that means that the fishery can continue productively indefinitely into the future".

And in order to carry an MSC label, fisheries must undergo a complete reassessment after five years by an accredited team.

Experts believe that when a huge corporation chooses ethical or sustainable food, it can have a significant impact.

They seem optimistic that putting the little blue label on the side of the burger box - even if just in Europe - will make a real difference.

McDonald's consumers in the United States will have to wait for a similar move.

But, on both sides of the pond, it is up to consumers to vote with their feet.

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