The Meat Seeker’s Mission
A surprisingly difficult investigation into where one neighborhood gets its meat.
I walked up to the counter and ordered. I intended to pop the question then but it was busy and loud; I chickened out and sat down. As I ate, I eyed the various employees and tried to figure out who would be the best one to ask.
The woman who seemed to be the boss looked intimidating, so I opted for a guy who appeared to be second-in-command. “Hey, would you mind telling me where you guys get your meat?” He immediately looked annoyed, said “I have no idea,” and turned to a table that urgently needed wiping. I sheepishly followed.
While walking one night in the Mission—my busy, restaurant-filled neighborhood in San Francisco—I was having a conversation about meat. We talked about the reasons to abstain: animals are too often raised and killed cruelly, it’s environmentally damaging and unsustainable to maintain current meat consumption levels, and it’s luxuriously easy in this city to eat fulfillingly without it. Willful blindness to what happens to animals before they get to our plates seems wrong. But, we both agreed, even though bad meat is bad, isn’t most of the meat around here good meat from good places?
If there ever was a place where that were true, the Mission must be it. It’s packed with restaurants of all types and prices, with menu boards boasting of sustainable ingredients, and people who claim to care about where their food comes from. In many respects, including food, the Mission is an area where people expect, and will pay for, something different.
I wondered if this image of ourselves was actually true, though—were we really eating “good meat?” How would we know? What does good mean? Is it even possible that we’re eating good meat when 90% of it nationwide comes from factory farms?
Thus, a project was born. I imagined it with a modest aim—to find out where the restaurants in the 2-square miles around that initial conversation get their meat. Attempting to answer these questions led straight into a startling barrier: we have no idea where our meat comes from, and, currently, no feasible way to find out.
After almost two years of asking, hassling, dead-ending, and collaborating, here is an account of what I found.
I grabbed a notebook and headed out into the Mission, planning to stroll into a bunch of restaurants in one evening, jot down where they get their meat, and put together a basic list and map of those sources.
This didn’t go quite as planned. I was completely unprepared for the worry, defensiveness, hostility, and—sometimes—panic that the question “Where do you get your meat?” evoked. It was, without exception, an awkward and difficult experience.
Setting out, I expected some amount of suspicion. I expected to find that we aren’t eating what we think we’re eating, that the distribution system is opaque and complicated, and that most of our meat is factory farmed. That was all true. But the most shocking finding was that, despite extreme determination and effort:
One-third of restaurants refused to tell me where their meat comes from. The other two-thirds did so with extreme reluctance and, I suspect, not always complete honesty.
I made in-person visits and phone calls at early and late hours to restaurants; I tried different tones and approaches, including mentioning some of the common commodity (i.e. factory farmed) sources (e.g. Tyson) so they would feel comfortable admitting them as well, and recruiting my more charming friends to help. When that failed, I resorted to old-fashioned relentlessness, visiting and calling individual restaurants up to eight times before giving up on them.
One popular meat-centric restaurant in the neighborhood exemplified this struggle. I became a bit obsessed with getting them to tell me where they get their meat. It was the first restaurant I visited for the project and I didn’t have a battle plan yet, mostly because I had no idea this was going to be a battle.
“Hey, sorry again, but I’m doing a little project and trying to figure out where restaurants in the Mission get their meat. Could you please point me to the person who would know?”
“No idea, you’d have to ask the manager.”
“Ok, when will the manager be here?”
“She’s over there,” he pointed to the register. Behind it was the intimidating lady who I’d avoided asking the first time around, who I’ll call Carol.
I got back in line. “Hi, sorry, I already ate, but I was just wondering if you could tell me where you get your meat?”
“We’re really busy now, we get it from our distributors. Next.” She waved the person behind me up.
“Oh, ok, can you tell me which ones?” I asked, awkwardly lurking over the shoulder of the girl she’d waved ahead of me.
“Call tomorrow, we’re busy.”
Carol never caved. I called the next day at noon, but Carol wasn’t there. I was told to call back at three, which I did. Carol answered and said she’d look into it and call me back; she never did. I made another visit, at least six more calls, had friends call for me. Turned out, this restaurant’s reluctance wasn’t unique.
I didn’t know it at the time but this embarrassing, frustrating experience was going to be one I got well acquainted with.
I worried that this resistance was caused by my lack of journalistic experience or credentials, so I reached out to Mission Local, a neighborhood news blog for the Mission. They were enthusiastic about the questions I was asking. Soon I had the help of Mark, one of their food writers. Mark’s version of the story is here.
With the legitimacy of a neighborhood newspaper behind us, and four boots on the ground, restaurants were a tiny bit more willing to share information. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it seemed to help to say we were writing for a newspaper (as opposed to just “a project I was doing” or my “just wondering”). My best explanation for the increased responsiveness is that restaurants were afraid to be reported publicly as refusing to respond, that Mission Local had a good reputation in the area, or that Mark framed questions more confidently and assertively than I did (I listened to a few of his calls). Still, the two of us struggled to get answers.
We noticed patterns in the tactics restaurants used to deter us, the most common of which were:
- Saying the chef was too busy because it was dinner time (fair), and to come back during lunch;
- Saying the chef wasn’t around because it was lunch (confusing), and to come back during dinner;
- Asking us to leave our number so that someone could call back (only one ever did);
- Saying no one currently on the premises had an answer, but that someone who did would be there another day (repeat 1 or 2);
- Citing a made-up farm;
- Claiming not to speak English (or Spanish);
- Hanging up (when phoned).
An Interlude About Factory Farms
The problems and horrors of factory farms are well documented elsewhere. The recent article “Animal Cruelty Is the Price We Pay for Cheap Meat” does a disturbingly good job of it.
Although thinking in terms of “good” and “bad” meat belies the nuance and complexity of what I’ve come to think of as the meat-industrial complex, I think its fair to characterize factory farmed meat as “bad” and other meat, at least, as “better.”
The vast majority of animals raised for food in the United States are raised on factory farms, also known as confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Meat from these factories is often called “commodity meat.” Factory farms raise huge numbers of animals at once (e.g. 10,000 pigs or 800,000 chickens per farm), usually exclusively indoors with little or no room to move. The factories are overseen by a very small number (per animal) of factory workers rather than traditional farmers with experience in animal husbandry and raising.
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s 2013 follow-up report to the Pew commission’s 2008 warnings and recommendations about the meat industry clearly describe the risks posed by factory farming to people, to animals, to environmental quality, and to the ability of the planet to sustain future life.
A few of the troubling conclusions are:
- Evidence linking antibiotic misuse in [factory farms] to environmental transport of and human infection with antibiotic-resistant bacteria continues to accumulate. Despite the sizable body of literature supportive of a decision to eliminate antimicrobial use outside the context of veterinarian-diagnosed disease, little progress has been made to change patterns of use.
- The past five years have seen a number of efforts aimed at weakening federal oversight of food animal production….To date, the food animal production industry remains excused from the same scrutiny faced by other industries.
- State legislative efforts to criminalize whistleblowers exposing the cruelty of industrial confinement production system must be opposed. The lack of transparency in the industrial food animal production system is a serious concern and presents a concern from a public health perspective.
- Practices such as confining animals in spaces too small to allow for natural behaviors, altering animals without pain relief, and providing animal feeds that promote growth at the expense of animal health have become routine. Further, there are currently no federal regulations in place to protect farm animal welfare.
I started baffled and graduated to frustrated, indignant, embarrassed, and, finally, reflective — I began to worry that by asking these questions I was doing something wrong to hurt the restaurants and community that I really enjoyed.
That worry has since faded. It’s a rare circumstance when more knowledge or transparency is a bad thing, and knowing where our meat comes from isn’t one of them. Factory farming — a cruel and polluting mutation of traditional farming—is virtually indefensible (and certainly unsustainable). Yet, the obscurity of the meat system makes it too hard for most of us to make individual, informed decisions about what kind of meat we eat day-to-day, and people deal with that cost barrier by either abstaining from meat entirely, or, more commonly, just eating whatever is served. The latter is compromising our health, planet, and ethics.
My goal isn’t to villainize restaurants (who just serve what we ask and pay for), or to make anyone feel bad about what they eat. Restaurants are our point of access to the meat system, but responsibility for achieving transparency and eating less bad meat lies across the whole system, starting with our power (responsibility) to ask: “Where does your meat come from?”
This is just the beginning of our project, and there are many shortcomings to the data we’ve collected so far (Mark speaks more in depth about those). Nonetheless, we’ve already discovered some interesting things.
In almost two years, we contacted 101 restaurants in the Mission and 65 of them told us where they get their meat (usually after 2 or more attempts). This means that ⅓ of the restaurants we asked refused to tell us where they get their meat.
For the other 36 restaurants, we repeated the request for data 2-8 times before giving up. Some outright refused to give us the information, others successfully avoided our inquiries (e.g. by saying they would call us with the information and never doing so, even when we followed up).
The majority of meat served in the Mission, based on our sample of 65 who would tell us, is commodity meat from factory farms.
The 65 restaurants who responded get their meat from 75 different suppliers. To better envision what that means, we categorized those suppliers based on how many steps removed they were from the original farm. Of the 75 suppliers there were 37 direct sources (farms or collectives with some of their own animals, including small farms or huge commodity operations like Harris Ranch), 26 wholesalers or distributors, and 12 retailers (grocery and corner stores or butchers).
Broken down a bit further, restaurants in the Mission get their meat from an elaborate web of sources (even within a single restaurant), including:
- Nearby corner stores;
- Nearby butchers (e.g. Avedanos, 4505 Meats);
- Grocery stores (e.g. Safeway);
- Local distributors (e.g. Golden Gate Meats, Marin Sun Farms);
- National distributors (e.g. Sysco, Tyson);
- Meat collectives, in which multiple ranchers pool meat together to be distributed under one brand (e.g. Marin Sun Farms, Niman Ranch);
- Directly from “good” farms and ranches (e.g. Magruder Ranch);
- Indirectly from factory farms (by far the most common source).
The most cited restaurant supplier in the Mission is Golden Gate Meat Company. They supplied 14 of the 65 restaurants, whereas other sources only served an average of 2 of the restaurants. Mark interviewed the owner of Golden Gate Meats, who told us that 50% of their sales are commodity meat, 50% are natural or organic meat.
All the meat sources also source from each other, creating a complicated, messy distribution system. When asking where your meat comes from, ask for the original source (collective, ranch, or factory farm) because knowing only the middle distributor, e.g. Golden Gate Meats, tells you nothing about its origin.
One of our most troubling findings is how difficult it is to know which labels and claims to trust.
For restaurants who list brand name meats on their menus, many have one or two novelty meats from better or good meat sources, but the remainder and majority of their meat is commodity (e.g. Sysco, Tyson, Costco).
The factory farm industry has misappropriated and distorted the language of healthy farming in order to placate and capture a larger market and conceal the ugliness of their operations. They have an astonishingly well developed and shared doublespeak that we plan to write about in another piece. In the meantime, the Animal Welfare Approved organization has a good food labeling primer.
As a very rough rule of thumb, “pasture raised organic” is the label most likely to reflect what most people would think of as “good meat” — although not foolproof, meat sold under this label should come from animals that are raised on pastures and are antibiotic free.
Here are a few Mission haunts that, as of February 2014, we think sell good meat that is honestly raised and transparently sold, and who share an interest in doing it right:
- 4505 Meats (butcher shop)
- Avedanos (butcher shop, technically in Bernal Heights)
- Bi-Rite Market (grocery and deli)
- Local Mission Eatery/Local’s Corner (restaurants by same owner)
- Local Mission Market (butcher shop and market)
- Mission Cheese (restaurant and cheese shop)
- Pal’s Takeaway (sandwich shop)
- Sous Beurre Kitchen (pop-up, restaurant opening soon)
Here are some good farmers, ranchers, and collectives we’ve found (i.e. names to look for on menus):
- Bauer Ranch (Covelo, CA)
- Becker Lane Pork (Dyersville, Iowa)
- Belcampo Meat Co./Belcampo Farms (Gazelle, CA)
- BN Ranch (Bolinas, CA)
- Devil’s Gulch Ranch (Nicasio, CA)
- Hat Creek Ranch (Hat Creek, CA)
- Magruder Ranch (Potter Valley, CA)
- Napa Valley Lamb Company (Northern California)
- River Dog Farm (Guinda, CA)
Our next goal is to map the full ecosystem that meat and animals travel through to get to our plates. We’d also like to understand more about the economics of better meat, and whether it is affordable enough to be mainstream (so far, we think it is, see e.g. Chipotle).
We’re supporting the Humane Eating Project in building an app that allows diners to quickly access information about restaurants’ meat. The idea is that diners can quickly determine whether the restaurant meets their standards for goodness and price value, and discover new restaurants that do.
The main learning so far is that it is really, really hard to trace the meat we eat to its original source, and that difficulty is not by accident. Trying to track distributors leads to janky websites (e.g. Great American Farms and Coleman Natural) and P.O. boxes rather than idyllic pastures. I realized that the difficulty I was having just getting the information, starting with the restaurants themselves, was a story in itself.
One-third of the over 100 restaurants we asked refused to tell us where they get their meat. Most of the other two-thirds did so reluctantly and with suspicion. To compound the problem, restaurants that tout “good” meat are too often misleading people, intentionally or not.
The most important thing we can do to improve the quality and treatment of the meat we’re eating is to ask where it came from before ordering.
Although trivially simple, asking is awkward at first. But the more we ask, the more restaurants will get used to, and comfortable with, answering. (And many thanks to the restaurants shared their sources already, even though they had little to gain individually from doing so.)
The Mission already sells lots of good meat and is surrounded by farms that can produce more of it. The most common meat distributor says 50% of the meat it sells is natural or organic (although those terms leave room for wiggle), brand names are common on menus (same), and some restaurants are making real efforts to use better meat. Transparency, an honest marketplace, and better meat are not far from our reach.
I started this project wanting to know what it meant for meat to be good. That answer was surprisingly simple to find—it took just a short drive up to Bolinas, to stand in the fields of BN Ranch among cows and their curious calves. Farms like that remove any doubt that you can raise animals with both respect and commercial success, without resorting to cruel practices. As we were playing with the calves Mark said “this is making me never want to eat meat again.” I felt exactly the opposite: this is what meat eating should be. But driving back to the Mission, and sitting down to eat, Bolinas felt lost and a million miles away.
I want to shorten that distance. I want to promote healthier, more humane, and moderated meat eating by making information about our meat easily accessible. This is a continuing project, so please send any thoughts, info, insight, suggestions, and critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can get it right.