Catch of the day: McDonald's to serve up 'sustainable' fish

McDonald's is seeking to enhance its once heavily-criticised environmental record by switching to fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.

In the latest instalment of a long-running ethical makeover, the US company will source MSC Alaskan pollack from Alaska, New Zealand hoki and Baltic cod in its European outlets. As well as serving up officially sustainable Filet-o-Fish at 7,000 outlets, it will put the MSC logo on cartons, promoting the best-known scheme for preserving fish stocks.

The MSC praised McDonald's, saying it showed it was committed to conserving the oceans, which are in peril from over-fishing. Toby Middleton, MSC's UK manager, said: "This isn't the work of a moment. It's part of a much larger piece of work McDonald's have done with fisheries towards sustainable sourcing. And the result in the restaurant sector is, I believe, a real sign of the MSC going to scale. McDonald's is uniquely likely to influence people's eating and shopping habits and is setting a good example to the rest of the food service sector."

It is another move that will improve McDonald's image, amid earlier criticism of its fatty food, environmental and animal welfare sourcing and low-paid "McJobs". Stores have been refurbished with a green livery and its in-house training scheme has won plaudits. But customers may be wondering what its general record on sourcing is: just how good is McDonald's?

Despite the hoopla, it has long had a good record on fish, turning away from cod in favour of pollack and hoki. Until now it did not have the MSC's seal of approval nor sought to promote sustainability among customers. While it sources free-range eggs and British beef, its chicken comes from farms meeting Assured Chicken Production standards, which means the chicken in its chicken nuggets comes from mass-produced, low welfare birds. Similarly its pork comes from similarly low Assured Pork Production.

Katya Read, of Compassion in World Farming, which is working with McDonald's to make further improvements, said: "As far as we are concerned they have got some really good policies. On eggs they have won Good Egg awards and they carry out quite a lot of research into how they can improve their supply chain... and turning around a supply chain like that is no mean feat."

McDonald's said it spent £530m a year buying British. "Overall, 55 per cent of our food comes from the British Isles and Ireland – including all our beef, pork, milk and eggs," a spokeswoman said. "We're a long term supporter of British farming and this commitment gives farmers the confidence in tough times to reinvest in their businesses."

So, how green is McDonald's?

*McDonald's in Europe is strong in some areas of ethical sourcing, say experts. On eggs, the company uses only free-range eggs in its breakfast muffins.

Beef for its Big Mac and other burgers comes exclusively from 16,000 farms in the British Isles, rather than South America, where cattle ranches are linked to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Less good, according to campaigners, is that its chicken and pork – both major ingredients – come from intensively reared rather than outdoor or free-range animals.

The company buys tea and coffee certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an environmental certification created by multi-national companies, which some commentators consider to be inferior to Fairtrade, a grassroots labour movement which has environmental standards and spend a premium developing communities in poor countries.

Overall, McDonald's is doing well, particularly in the competitive fast food market, but there is room for improvement. Its ethical standards are also far higher in the UK and Europe than they are in the US.