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Today, we are pleased to announce that Residential & Dining Enterprises (R&DE) Stanford Dining, Hospitality & Auxiliaries (SDHA) is the first campus dining organization in the country to earn the highest rating from James Beard Foundation’s acclaimed Smart Catch program. Under the program guidelines, Smart Catch Ambassadors demonstrate high performance (their menus consist almost exclusively of approved products) and advocate for seafood sustainability more broadly. This is the first time Smart Catch has seen its program’s high bar for sustainable seafood met by an organization feeding such a large number of people–25,000 meals served per day in Stanford dining halls, and over 100,000 pounds of seafood purchased per year.
"We are deeply honored to be recognized as a Smart Catch Ambassador and are committed to using our influence to lead efforts in maintaining healthy and sustainable seafood sources,” said Eric Montell, Assistant Vice Provost for SDHA. “We are honored to participate in such an impactful leadership and advocacy program, and to support valued partners working towards protecting our cherished oceans."
The Smart Catch program is run by Postelsia, a company that specializes in evaluating and verifying seafood sustainability for producers and buyers. They are responsible for auditing all participating restaurants; to date, Smart Catch has evaluated over 600 restaurants.
For many foodservice professionals, seafood can be challenging. Stanford and Postelsia have decades of experience advancing sustainable seafood. Here, we review the opportunities and challenges and offer ideas for how to incorporate seafood on any operator’s menu as a key solution for ensuring student satisfaction and healthy, sustainable, delicious food choices for all.
Top Strategies for Sustainable Seafood
Based on our combined efforts to support sustainable sourcing from the sea, and leveraging some of the concrete strategies that have been successful for Stanford R&DE, here are our top recommendations for incorporating sustainable seafood onto your menu:
1. First and foremost, we should offer diners more sustainable seafood overall. While there is wide variability, seafood tends to be a nutrient-rich and climate friendly protein choice.
2. The Menus of Change Principle has it right: “Serve More Kinds of Seafood More Often.” Emphasis on the “more kinds.” As an example, at Stanford, we've found that our students love the variety of seafood in our paella recipe. In general, species diversification is sorely needed. In the U.S., the most menued species on restaurant and foodservice menus are shrimp, salmon, tuna, and whitefish, accounting for 77% of total seafood consumed. A missed opportunity considering these are far from the only nutritious and delicious foods from aquatic systems, and in many cases, far from the most sustainable types.
3. Which brings us to: use science-based third-party certifications as helpful shortcuts. For example, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council, and certification that has been recognized by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative. They’re not a panacea, but they generally are a useful marker of rigorous standards and an outside auditor having verified that those standards are being met. That’s much better than relying solely on the marketing (and sometimes greenwashing) of a seafood company on its own.
4. Follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Red means “avoid,” yellow means “good alternative,” green means “best choice”--like a stoplight–and the newer rating, blue, means certified by a reputable source. Dining leaders at Stanford have used this framework for years, and now 100% of our seafood is Seafood Watch green, blue, or yellow rated.
5. Choose seafood species that are lower on the food chain. Seafood species that are low on the food chain–such as sardines (a popular dish among Stanford students is our Mediterranean sardine toast), or vegetarian fish like tilapia–tend to be less concerning not only for environmental reasons but also for human health, due to their lack of mercury and other toxins that can bioaccumulate in carnivorous fish like tuna or swordfish.
6. Don’t focus on whether it’s wild vs. farmed. Eating a diversity of wild and farmed species can actually build resilience in communities here in the U.S., as well as abroad. The reality is that any seafood item can be produced really well or really poorly, so it’s more important to find out if producers are using rigorous production practices that minimize negative impacts.
7. Train to maintain. Your seafood standards, that is, by ensuring that every chef, manager, and procurement officer in your operation is up to speed on what your seafood purchasing protocol is. If a product’s sustainability rating changes, what’s the plan? If a product isn’t available, what are your replacement options? And so on.
8. Incorporate frozen seafood. Did you know frozen is the new fresh? Freezing technologies are now so advanced that the best can freeze fish immediately upon harvest, instantly preserving nutritional qualities like omega-3s. Buying frozen fish also eliminates air freighting seafood, which comes with a significant carbon footprint.
9. Give canned seafood another look, due to its long shelf life and the fact that it can integrate more parts of the fish (e.g., bones). In addition, there is a tinned seafood revolution happening with innovative start-ups bringing new energies and ideas to the category.
10. Get creative with offcuts. Using other parts of fish besides filets is a great way to minimize waste. While making your own gelatin from fish scales may be more effort than you’re looking for, give fish cheeks and fin “wings” a try, or make your own fish broth.
11. Support community-supported fisheries and/or aquaculture programs when possible. They might be hard to find, but they do exist (e.g.,International Pole and Line Foundation, Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative). There are ways to support climate-friendly and sustainable seafood solutions from overseas, and by doing so, we help build resilience into every corner of our world.
12. Don’t forget seaweed! It’s hard to go wrong enjoying seaweed in its many different forms. There are boundless ways to incorporate seaweed into your menu–from soups and bowls to smoothies and salads.
As you’re implementing these strategies, here is the great news and here are the challenges to keep in mind:
The Great News
The great news is that certain “blue foods” or “aquatic foods”--“food derived from aquatic animals, plants or algae that are caught or cultivated in freshwater and marine environments,” according to the landmark Blue Foods Assessment (BFA)--are among the most nutritious, sustainable foods on the planet. Specifically, small pelagics (small oily fish like herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines), bivalves (shellfish like mussels, clams, oysters, scallops), and seaweeds are runaway winners from BFA’s analysis in terms supporting equitable livelihoods and supporting not only the planet but people. Seafood can provide essential nutrients–including omega-3s, iron, Vitamins B and D, and protein–to support health and wellness at all stages of life.
“There are more than 2,500 species of fish, crustaceans, plants, and algae that are produced for food,” said Jim Leape, a fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and Co-Director of the Center for Ocean Solutions, who helped lead the BFA. “Across that extraordinary diversity are myriad opportunities for foods that are more nutritious, more sustainable, and more inclusive all at once.”
Aquatic foods are especially promising when compared with common land-based foods, particularly those that are animal-based. “If done sustainably, you could actually increase food from the sea and by an outsize proportion relative to expansion of land-based food,” said Ling Cao, Affiliated Fellow at Stanford's Center for Food Security and the Environment, in a Stanford Earth Matters article in 2020.
A similar Nature paper, by Bianchi et al. in 2022, assessed nutrient density and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of common seafood types, and the comparisons are unequivocal: Beef and pork fare worse than small pelagics, large pelagics, and both farmed and wild salmonids and farmed whitefish; most every type of seafood was rated more nutrient-dense than chicken, with farmed bivalves, small pelagics, wild salmonids, and wild whitefish all also lower in emissions than chicken.
Sustainable seafood is also incredibly complicated, in part because it is literally produced all over this planet in numerous ways, and is a critically important resource for billions of people, both for food security and for their livelihoods. The reality of the seafood industry is that it is primarily populated by smaller-scale producers, which means they don’t operate as supply chains but more as supply webs.
Seafood is also historically not favored as a protein source in the American diet. A mere 1 in 5 Americans eat the recommended two servings per week. Roughly half of Americans eat it only occasionally or not at all.
“Chefs also have a unique opportunity to act as change agents in promoting sustainable seafood practices to their diners,” said Montell. “By carefully selecting and preparing sustainably sourced seafood, chefs can not only offer their customers a delicious meal, but educate them about the importance of responsible fishing and aquaculture practices. By prioritizing sustainable seafood options on their menus, chefs can inspire positive change in the industry and help protect freshwater and marine environments for generations to come. At Stanford, we have a unique opportunity to influence the 250 million meals our current students will consume over their collective lifetimes.”
The other catch, so to speak, is that all too often, seafood is simply overlooked in conversations about shifting diets. It’s often not on the agenda at food conferences or in major action plans around food and health or food and climate. (Food in itself is often not on the agenda for climate to begin with.) And it’s grossly underinvested in, relative to its tremendous potential impact. Of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, “Life Below Water” received the least investment. No doubt this contributes to its low visibility among both decision-makers and consumers. In the U.S., aquaculture funding is less than 2% of the budget for NOAA Fisheries.
And yes, aquaculture plays a key role in this future of sustainable seafood. Why? Today, more than 50% of all of the seafood you eat has been farmed, and not all farmed fish and seafood is bad. Far from it. In fact, aquaculture has existed for thousands of years and is currently the fastest growing form of food production. In addition, the modern face of aquaculture is changing rapidly. For many people, “aquaculture” is a bad word because they have heard the negative headlines about salmon and shrimp farming in particular (mangrove destruction, disease issues, chemicals, etc.) and have thus painted the entire aquaculture industry with the same brush. But today, new standards have arisen for responsible aquaculture–for everything from shellfish to pond aquaculture to regenerative ocean farming.
In closing, R&DE SDHA may be the first campus dining organization to earn Smart Catch Ambassador status, but we certainly hope they will not be the only. Stanford collaborates with 70 other colleges and universities through the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, and tremendous work is occurring there and nationwide to improve human and planetary health through food. While it may feel daunting to responsibly ensure that aquatic foods play a role in shaping your healthy and sustainable menus, we’re confident that steps like these 12 can get you heading in the right direction.
@Foodservice leaders: What’s missing from our list of strategies? Tell us what strategies you’re using in your own operation. This is a 1.0 solution set, but Postelsia is currently creating a foodservice playbook for sustainable seafood sourcing, and their goal is to crowdsource knowledge and success stories from operations nationwide. Get in touch at [email protected].
Sophie Egan is director of the Stanford Food Institute and Sustainable Food Systems while Corey and Laura Peet are co-founders of Postelsia