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Behind the Line: New school

Universities a natural fit for sustainable seafood chain-of-custody certification

One-third of the seafood served at Notre Dame is MSC-certified.  - Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Food Services.
By Lauren Kramer
October 01, 2012

When the University of Notre Dame Food Services received chain-of-custody certification from the Marine Stewardship Council in November 2008, Executive Chef Donald Miller was determined to make the process easier and less complicated for the universities that followed this path on the road to seafood sustainability. It had taken him almost a year to obtain the certification and as the first university in North America to receive it, he knew he could provide a template or guideline to other schools.

His wake-up call had arrived in 1998, when he was the executive chef of the Notre Dame University Hotel and was catering a benefactors’ dinner attended by then-president Father Edward Malloy. A week later, Malloy forwarded an email to him from one of the benefactors. “[The email] lambasted me for serving Chilean sea bass at a benefit,” Miller recalls. “I knew I needed to spend some time getting a handle on seafood sustainability.” 

Notre Dame’s hotel and conference programs are MSC-certified, as well as the university’s north and south dining halls, its Legends Restaurant, Greenfields, its healthy cuisine concept and its $7 million catering operation. The centralized receiving warehouse is certified too.

“If you’re clever, getting MSC certification is not as expensive as you might think,” he says, adding it is simplified by Notre Dame’s food management computer system, SeaBoard. MSC-certified seafood represents 33 percent of the 170,000 pounds of seafood served at the university each year.

Miller switched some of the seafood species he was using, including chum salmon instead of sockeye, and halibut, pollock, sablefish, tuna and cod that had MSC certification. The cost was approximately 4 percent higher, he says, but the payoff has been significant in terms of awareness.  

“It’s made our 200-odd culinary staff in foodservice very conscious of what we’re serving and it’s raised their level of stewardship,” he says. 

Miller assembled a step-by-step procedure manual about how a university could go about getting MSC certification and delivered it to the London-based group. It’s full of tips he learned along the way and it was an invaluable resource for Steven Miller, senior chef at Cornell University. Two of Cornell’s 10 all-you-can-eat locations received MSC certification in July and the process required introducing multiple new vendors who could offer nine species of MSC-certified seafood.

The impetus for certification came in the summer of 2011, when Barton Seaver, a National Geographic Fellow, Washington, D.C., chef and author of “For Cod and Country,” spent two days with Cornell’s culinary team. 

“He spoke about how we can effect change in the oceans and it was very moving,” Steven Miller recalls. “It really resonated with the group of chefs I was working with, and the result was that our dining management team decided even though it was more costly to move toward MSC certification, it was important that we do so.”

Cornell will be featuring up to 1,000 pounds of seafood each week in its MSC-certified locations, and Miller predicts that number could easily double when the university has VIP catering functions. In terms of cost, he estimates MSC-certified product is between 30 and 50 percent more expensive on average. But on the other hand, it’s saved money by cutting out many of the middlemen standing between the university’s culinary staff and the fishermen. 

Cornell’s foodservice locations serve 27,000 daily and Miller’s goal is for all locations to be MSC-certified by 2015. “Don Miller’s template was a really good roadmap for me to follow,” he says. 

“As chefs, we’re the gatekeepers, the first line of defense, and it’s not just about cooking anymore. You have a responsibility to manage your resource as best you can,” says Don Miller of Notre Dame. “Can you do it without MSC certification? Maybe, but it’s totally different when you have to prove it.” 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia 

October 2012 - SeaFood Business         

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