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Fish Schticks: A Tour of Fast Food Fish

Fish on Fridays by Michael Conathan

SOURCE: flickr/barron

McDonald's uses hoki and Alaska pollock in its famous Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

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The world of fast food fish is often murky. Exactly which species lurks beneath the breading and between those sesame-seeded buns? How was it caught? Where did it come from?

These questions don’t typically arise when it comes to conversations about other fast food products. Beef is pretty much just beef. Chicken is just chicken. We don’t ask if our hens are bantams, leghorns, or Rhode Island Reds. Or whether the cow was raised in Oklahoma or Brazil. (Perhaps we should, but that’s an issue for another day and another columnist to investigate.) And while we might look for “free range” or “organic” labels at the grocery store, if we’re eating under the Golden Arches, we’ve pretty much decided to skip that particular green step.

In this week’s column we look into the fishy offerings from the top fast food chains—four breaded and fried, one popped out of a can and mixed with mayo—to find out what’s in your sandwich. We present them below with just a soupçon of sustainability criteria so that even when you’re making the decision to fund fast food nation you can at least be fully informed about how to minimize your environmental impact.

Navigating the waters of sustainable seafood seems daunting at first glance. But several organizations have worked to overcome that with easy-to-use resources for businesses and consumers. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has convenient pocket guides and a downloadable app for your mobile device. And if you don’t have an iPhone you can send Blue Ocean institute a text message containing the species of fish you’re considering and they’ll send you a quick sustainability profile.

Many corporations look to the Marine Stewardship Council, an organization that certifies fisheries around the world that meet certain sustainability standards. Where chains use MSC-certified products we’ll note that here.

So without further ado let’s peel back the breading and find out what you’re biting into when you unwrap that Filet o’… well, of what, exactly?

McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish

McD’s became the fast food fish pioneer when a franchisee who found his business was dropping on Fridays introduced the Filet-o-Fish in 1962 as a meat alternative for his predominantly Catholic clientele. Initially made with Atlantic cod filets, the company was forced to look elsewhere after overfishing of the species in the 1980s reduced cod availability and caused prices to spike.

McDonald’s sold 296 million Filets-o-Fish in 2010. On average, they sizzled up 2.22 million fish sandwiches per day during Lent but only about 637,500 per day the rest of the year.

What’s in it: A 2009 New York Times story found that McDonald’s was using mainly hoki, a less-than-handsome species native to New Zealand. While hoki has been certified as sustainable by the MSC, several conservation groups dispute this certification and contend that it is overfished. Now the Golden Arches switched primarily to Alaska Pollock in their domestic outlets, a fish that’s also MSC certified and ubiquitous in products from fish sticks to imitation “krab.” And thoughthe pollock population decreased slightly in 2009 and 2010, this year, managers and scientists found it had rebounded sufficiently to increase catch limits by about 50 percent over last year. The Alaska pollock fishery is generally regarded as well managed, and catches are closely monitored by scientifically trained observers to ensure limits are not exceeded.

Sustainability rating: Surprisingly, something to sing about. McDonald’s is widely considered the leader in sustainable seafood sourcing for fast food chains. They operate in conjunction with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, and one of their executives was recognized with a Champion award from the Seafood Choices Alliance in 2009.

Wendy’s Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich

Wendy’s introduced the sandwich in 2008, and it has attempted to distinguish it as “premium.” Their recent advertising tells us “your fish should never be a mystery.” But does that translate into sustainability?

What’s in it: Wendy’s describes their sandwich as “hand-cut fillets of North Pacific cod in a crisp Panko crumb breading.” At first glance this may seem positive because Pacific cod is generally thought to be a more sustainable alternative to Atlantic. But as Seafood WATCH explains, Pacific cod can either be a best choice or something to avoid completely, depending on where it is caught. The country in which the fish are caught factors greatly into its sustainability.

Sustainability rating: While the species in the sandwich may not be a mystery, its source definitely is. If Wendy’s gets its fish from domestic sources it would stack up favorably to McDonald’s in this category, as the domestic fishery for Pacific cod is MSC certified. But internationally sourced Pacific cod gets an “avoid” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. Source information is not available on Wendy’s website, and requests for additional information have gone unanswered. Until Wendy’s is more forthcoming with their sourcing information we have to give them lowest marks for sustainability.

Burger King’s BK Big Fish

The BK Big Fish was reintroduced in its current form in 2005. It certainly lives up to its name in regard to size. But what about the fish?

What’s in it: BK’s nutrition facts cite “wild-caught Alaskan Pollock.” As explained earlier, Alaska pollock is an MSC-certified fishery.

Sustainability rating: Again, better than we expected. Oddly, though, BK’s sustainable seafood efforts are not trumpeted particularly well on their website. Their sustainability report contains only a brief section on fisheries, touting the health of the Gulf of Alaska and the sustainability of the pollock fishery.

KFC Fish Snacker

The Fish Snacker was introduced in 2005 as part of a variety of Snacker sandwiches. KFC’s subsequent bizarre seafood-related PR efforts have included an attempt to get the pope to bless the Fish Snacker and hiring a President Barack Obama lookalike to promote a new fish sandwich in Hong Kong.

What’s in it: The Snacker is “an Alaskan Pollock fish fillet breaded and fried to golden perfection, then topped with tangy tartar sauce and served on a warm sesame seed bun.” Are you sensing a trend?

Sustainability rating: To paraphrase a 1980s ad campaign for Wendy’s chicken tenders, “pollock is pollock.” MSC certified is apparently about as much as we can expect from these fast food giants.

Subway’s Tuna Sandwich

Subway recently passed McDonald’s to become the largest fast-food chain in the world with over 33,000 locations. While they don’t release their sales numbers, you can bet that’s a lot of tuna sandwiches.

What’s in it: Well, tuna, duh. But what kind of tuna? Probably not bluefin, given that a single one of those babies sold recently in Tokyo for over $400,000—$530 per pound. Their ingredients list cites only “dolphin-safe tuna,” but further digging reveals Subway uses canned chunk-light tuna, which is mostly comprised of Albacore, Bigeye, Skipjack, and Yellowfin.

Sustainability rating: Bottom of the barrel at least as far as this list is concerned. Seafood Watch explains that the sustainability of canned tuna varies greatly based on the method by which the fish are caught. Canned tuna labeled troll- or pole-caught is the most eco-friendly, but these tuna are typically labeled as “white” or “light,” not “chunk light.” The chunk light tuna used by Subway carries an “avoid” rating.

Truth be told, all the fried options would probably be on any dietician’s “avoid” list already. Our cohorts here at CAP would likely filet us if we let any discussion of fast food pass without pointing out that there really are plenty of reasons to skip it all together—not the least of which is the more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium contained in some of these sandwiches. But at least you can rest assured that snapping up a fish sandwich on the go isn’t going to put too much of a strain on the world’s oceans.

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Michael Conathan is Director of Ocean Programs, Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director for Ocean Communications and Junayd Mahmood is an intern with the Energy team at American Progress. 

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