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Aquaculture station nets sustainable seafood certification (4 photos)

In this month's 'Urban Cowboy', Owen Roberts discusses food sustainability standards at the university level
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Sustainability is a key word with University of Guelph hospitality services, which feeds more than 20,000 people on campus every day. Applying sustainability standards to food in that volume can be a challenge – a “daunting task,” in fact, according to the university’s food and beverage procurement manager, Mark Kenny.

He says organizations offering certifications have varying standards, policies and costs associated with their programs. Researching their values, products and supply chains takes time, and must be assessed for best overall practices.

And it’s a particular challenge when it comes to seafood, one of the food sector’s most mislabeled commodities. “Food fraud is rampant, so knowing who to trust becomes a key factor in decision making,” says Kenny.

That’s where technology like Guelph’s Barcode of Life DNA-based identification system works to help alleviate the guess work, at the molecular level. It’s this kind of technology that revealed mislabelling in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles, the latter showing 47 per cent of sushi there was a species other than the restaurant owners thought it was, or claimed it was.

Kenny understands a clear and transparent drive towards sustainability is vital. In food procurement circles, and in agriculture, the University of Guelph is highly regarded for its dedicated focus on purchasing local and sustainable products such as beef, chicken, fruits and vegetables, as well as products processed in Ontario.

And so it is with fish and seafood.

“We recognize the choices we make when sourcing fish and seafood can benefit the planet, as we reflect on the poor health of our oceans,” says Kenny. “So, we are working with our suppliers and making extra efforts to source sustainable seafood.”

Kenny and company have an added advantage that most land-locked universities don’t – one of their suppliers is the university’s own Alma aquaculture unit.

Alma is one of a handful of aquaculture research stations in Canada dedicated to helping the rapidly expanding aquaculture sector with sustainable practices. These efforts include developing science-based practices that minimize stress, maintain a healthy aquatic environment, reduce disease risks, improve genetics and prevent the spread of diseases when they do occur.

Their work is vital for sustaining Canada’s aquaculture industry, which now involves more than 25 species and realized revenues of $1.35 billion in 2016, up from $918 million just one year earlier.  Canada’s aquaculture exports in 2016 were valued at a record $1 billion.

Station director Prof. Rich Moccia, who is also director of the University’s aquaculture centre, says in Ontario, the private sector has recently invested about $50 million into the industry.

“After languishing in a relatively stable state for a number of years, Ontario’s aquaculture industry continues a recent trend of gradual expansion and diversification of farmed species,” he says.

Moccia cites tilapia and marine shrimp production, enhanced fish processing facilities to service this growing production output, and expanded aquaponics – that is, a system combining conventional aquaculture (raising fish and other seafood in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water). Increased commercial farm development by the First Nations’ communities in the province is substantial, too.

And although Alma is an active research station, it also sells limited quantities of wholesale fish. In a production line separate from the research line, it raises Arctic char specifically to sell to local food service enterprises like the university, and a half-dozen others. Proceeds from those sales are totally reinvested into helping support the unit’s research programs.

Arctic char is served across campus, from fish tacos at the Brass Taps restaurant to fine dining venues at catered weddings and official VIP functions. The latter are the domain of the university’s executive chef Vijay Nair and his team.

“Arctic char from Alma is an amazing product,” says Nair. “The quality is superb, and it always draws praise when we serve it.”

Over the years, Nair has removed specific unsustainable seafood choices from the university’s catering menus over the years, most lately being imported shrimp. He is hopeful domestic shrimp, for which production is being ramped up by Ontario’s aquaculture sector, can be sourced soon.

Meanwhile, Moccia and the Alma station have realized a significant achievement, receiving certification from the Ocean Wise program. It’s a made-in-Canada initiative dedicated to sustainable seafood production, in aquaculture operations and from the wild.

Leading restaurants and groups use Ocean Wise certification, including The Neighbourhood Group in Guelph, comprising Miijidaa, Borealis and the Woolwich Arms. The group has been involved with Ocean Wise since the early 2000s; all of its seafood menu offerings are consistent with the organization’s guidelines.

As an approved partner, the Ocean Wise symbol can be used next to Arctic char items on menus at the University and elsewhere, as an assurance of a sustainable seafood choice.

“A lot of buyers are now looking to purchase Ocean Wise certified seafood,” says Moccia. “Having the certification definitely sends a message that we meet rigorous and sustainable production standards.”

Certification included a site visit at the Alma station by an Ocean Wise representative. Some of the standards reviewed included such aspects as water use and wastewater management, feed supplies, health and disease management, animal welfare, data management systems, and system redundancy to prevent failures.

Kenny says the university’s hospitality services group is embarking on an education initiative to inform students, faculty and staff about the sustainable menu choices it already offers, such as the haddock used in its fish and chips, and those it’s pursuing.

“There is no easy pathway to ensuring sustainability across the entire value chain, but starting at the production level and connecting the strategy to buyers and consumers is a good start,” says Moccia.

Adds Nair: “Doing the right thing is important for us. We believe even small steps are good steps to get a buy-in from our students and customers. We hope the education about sustainable menu choices and our examples will influence our students when they make their choices in the future.”