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Mar 6, 2014 12:07 PM

Where does the meat come from?

The news about Marin Sun Farms buying Rancho Slaughterhouse, along with their other moves to open a new butchering facility in San Francisco suggest a seismic change in the local meat industry. Which makes this essay all the more timely:
The Meat Seeker’s Mission — Medium

Do we have a right to know where our restaurants get their meat? Or is that a restaurant's trade secret that we have no rights to know about? Is there typically no really differentiated supply chain that allows a restaurant to make claims about their sourcing? Is that poised to change?

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  1. Restaurants that buy meat directly from sources such as BN, Marin Sun, Becker Lane, Don Watson, Riverdog, and Magruder often put it on the menu and if they don't the servers can tell you.

    If you care about sourcing and they won't tell you, don't eat there.

    16 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      That was not the author's experience at all. She found most places were unable or unwilling to offer any information about their meat sourcing. The overwhelming prevalence of factory meat, and the overlapped, unclear supply chain currently makes sourcing information nearly impossible to ascertain in many or most cases.

      My question is, are we on the cusp of a change in the market where sourcing non-factory, organic meat -- and making the sourcing information available -- will be routine? Can we and should we, as restaurant consumers, push for this by asking for this sourcing information when it is not on the menu?

      I'd like to think we're at a place similar to where organic, farm to table, produce was a decade or so ago when 'organic' was a niche specialty found exclusively in place like Rainbow, BB, Whole Foods... At that time factory farming was an undisclosed, overwhelmingly prevalent status quo -- as factory meat is today. From a high end niche oddity, organic has changed the industry to the point where the likes of Safeway, Walmart, and every other grocer has embraced it because consumers have embraced it.

      1. re: BernalKC

        The author of that article has a lot to learn and is going about it backwards.

        Restaurants that are careful about sourcing are happy to share information, since they have to charge more to cover their much higher expenses. The vast majority of restaurants don't source carefully and there's not enough alternative meat that they could.

        "All the meat sources also source from each other" is simply false. The best ranchers sell all they can raise directly to restaurants and specialty butchers.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          "Restaurants that are careful about sourcing" are, per her research and my anecdotal observations, a not the norm, rather, they're a niche on the high end of the restaurant scene. And the Rancho story illustrates the tenuousness of the supply chain, even for producers who are trying to carve out a better channel.

          1. re: BernalKC

            Yes, of course, it's a tiny niche. In 2012 Americans ate around 50,000,000,000 pounds of beef. Bill Niman has 100,000 pounds in the freezer.

        2. re: BernalKC

          In 2012 there were around 90 million head of cattle in the US. About 400,000 or about 0.4% were on some sort of "natural" regime. I think that's more like where organic produce was 30 years ago.

          1. re: BernalKC

            I just read that article. That's not what it said. It said that a majority of restaurants (66%) were willing to share the sourcing of their meat. The author claims that most of those who did share "showed reluctance". I would be reluctant to share any information like that if a reporter asked me about a business I owned - any part of it. But share they did.

            RL did not contradict the article. He stated that restaurants who use good meat are proud of it and state it. He did not say the number of those restaurants.

            Most restaurants don't state that they use organic, and don't state the sourcing of their vegetables. I would suspect the same experiment around vegetables - asking sourcing, not organic vs non-organic - would lead to a very similar result.

            I think you are confusing the organic movement - which does NOT including sourcing information - with a potential higher-end certification of meat. That's much easier than identifying all meat sourcing, and I haven't yet seen any traction behind a labeling of "better meat" other than the current USDA grades. Might happen, just haven't seen it yet.

            1. re: bbulkow

              There is also the technique of prominently displaying a dish on the menu with a well-regarded source leaving diners with the possible impression that other dishes would come from the same source. Discussed here:

              1. re: bbulkow

                > That's not what it said.

                Fair enough. Initially, in her amateurish first effort, she hit a wall. Agreed that any business would be reluctant to open up to such questioning. And I agree with RL's description of the current, tiny niche market for 'better meat'; it being more like 30 years ago with organic produce.

                So are we on the cusp of seismic change? Is Rancho evidence of that? Is it time we agitate to help spur this change?

                1. re: BernalKC

                  I think there are two possible movements.

                  One is for humane treatment of animals. That would include very specific limits for all kinds of things - how long they're penned, how big the pens are, any number of things. The way to test the market is to draw up those standards, and see if * people care, and * meat suppliers can live with it. I think there have been attempted at this, I think they have failed (in that I can't remember any).

                  This will have less traction than organic in produce, because humane treatment doesn't change the meat on my table, in an easy-to-prove chemical sense. Organic works because "I don't want to eat pesticide". I think it'll be a struggle to get this across to people but --- prove me wrong!

                  The second effort would be a certification standard that does immediately impact what hits my plate - antibiotics and growth hormone and what-have-you. That had fairly immediate traction in milk. If there are effects in the meat supply around various non-animal additives, I think getting a certification standard that gets that out of the meat supply could work pretty well and be adopted quickly.

                  This is all my opinion and has very little to do with chow, but arguably this topic should be moved somewhere else.

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    'Organic works because "I don't want to eat pesticide" '

                    Yes, and that's also overly simplistic -- just the way the public likes its guidance. Considering total toxin burden, rather than just the manmade part as the "organic" dogma does, gives quite a different picture of health-related toxins in plant foods. That's been the work of the Food Toxicology group¹ in UC Davis's famous food-science department.

                    But its upshots have proved just as hard to convey to a public that craves simplistic, Good-vs-Bad messages as is, for instance, the understanding that MSG occurs naturally, widely, and is part of how foods taste the way they do.
                    ¹ Example -- conclusion from an overview paper by Winter and Davis, of that group:

                    "While many studies demonstrate qualitative differences between organic and conventional foods with respect to pesticide residues and nutrients, it is premature to conclude that either food system is superior to the other. Pesticide residues [and] naturally occurring toxins, nitrites, and polyphenolic compounds exert their health risks or benefits on a dose-related basis, and data currently do not exist to ascertain whether the differences in the levels of such chemicals between organic foods and conventional foods are of health significance."

                    1. re: eatzalot

                      In broad view, the situation is not complicated at all, even if the details are a complicated mix of dietary, public health, environmental, political, and economic concerns.

                      On the one hand, I know that ranchers such as Tim Mueller, Bill Niman, and Mac Magruder care a lot about the health of their land, their animals, and their customers.

                      On the other hand, I know that conventional producers care much less or not at all, and like tobacco companies a generation ago will spend lavishly to protect profits from products they know should be regulated or banned. For example:


                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Just don't conflate UC Davis with Monsanto or Novartis.

                        A friend whose university training is in biology read the research literature on naturally occurring agritoxins in great depth, then ceased ever eating processed peanut or corn products (peanut butter, creamed corn, corn chips). It seems these plants are prone to fungal attack, and what do you suppose the resulting "cosmetically defective" corn and nuts are used for? I recall also that the permitted limits for insect and fungal damage are far higher in the US than Europe, presumably from agribusiness lobbying. That's an example of complexities. Corn and peanuts are among crops Carl Winter and Sarah Davis (above) emphasized as at risk for mycotoxins from fungal attack, which can be avoided by proper use of anti-fungal agents, but are not then legally "organic."

                        1. re: eatzalot

                          I doubt UC Davis researchers are any less immune to the influence of sponsoring corporations than those at any other institution that permits such conflicts of interest. Studies directly sponsored by involved industries usually find the results the sponsors want.

                          Impartial info on alfatoxins:


                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            Jeez. Please spend some time reading, for yourself, the broad work of Davis's Food Toxicology group (aflatoxins are just one of many natural toxins examined, and in far more detail than in any Wellness Letter) before indulging in the typical internet gambit of trying to attack the credibility of any researcher whose results you don't happen to like. That, after all, is exactly what Syngenta did to Professor Hayes in the New Yorker article you just linked.

                            1. re: eatzalot

                              Nutritionists are not concerned about aflatoxin levels in peanut butter in the United States. You haven't cited anything specific that suggests they should be, so there's nothing for me to attack here.

                  2. re: BernalKC

                    "If you care about sourcing and they won't tell you, don't eat there."

            2. It's like Nelson Algren's advice about running into an acquaintance from long ago. "Don't ask him where he's been. Maybe he's been to prison. Maybe he's been to Hollywood. If he's been to Hollywood, he'll tell you."

              1. I am a chef who has worked in the bay area for 15 plus years. I have recently moved to Sonoma county for work. I familiar with both the bay area food scene meat purchasing and the situation at Rancho in Santa Rosa. I was one of the chefs that Mark interviewed for Mission Local, as at the time, I was the chef of a small wine bar in the mission. For many years now, I have used my purchasing power to support farmers and ranchers and fisherman that I thought were 'doing the right thing'. I am proud of the choices I make, and transparent with our guests. Mostly this is promoted through word of mouth. In some instances there is an aesthetic to menu writing that dissuades chefs from listing every farm/ranch. There are also chefs and restaurants that are dishonest, or think they are doing the right thing, but are misinformed. I would say that even less restaurants buy the right ingredients than is implied. And for the most part, the biggest culprits are the low end (which we are aware of on some level-there isn't grass fed organic beef in my 1.25$ taco), but some of the high high end places also are very guilty of buying the last tuna belly, or the meat from as far away as possible, or things that aren't from the best provenance, so make no assumptions.
                When I moved to Sonoma, I visited upwards of 25 ranches from Marin to Clear Lake, Bodega to Napa. I met the ranchers, saw the conditions their animals lived in, inquired about their practices. Based upon this, I decided who the farmers were that I wanted to support. It is the chef's job to connect guests to healthy, correctly sourced product; to suss out the marketing (hello Rocky Jr.) from the truth, and to inform the public about the financial dynamic of all of this.
                In the ultra competitive restaurant scene in the bay area, with its slim margins, high costs of doing business and a clientele that has many options to spend its dining dollar, some restauranteurs consider the health of their product secondary (tertiary or much further down the list) to making sure they can pay their bills, and maybe even turn a small profit, or because they afraid to turn that customer off by not offering something that 'every body loves' (trust me, offer rock cod to people who want chilean sea bass and they will look at you like you are from mars). It isn't so cut and dried why these decisions are made. I have sat in many owner/management meetings discussing the difference between food cost currently, and what it would be if cost was our primary purchasing indicator. Luckily, I have been more associated with owners who care about the provenance of the ingredients they serve, than their profits. Unfortunately that has always meant a much slimmer margin, and in a couple of cases may have been the difference between staying open, and not. (it merits pointing out, that a restaurant that is in text book line with every cost % spelled out in the 'master restaurant handbook, if there were on, would make 10% profit. in SF, most restaurants hover at 5 %, while a lot can just afford to pay everyone a salary, and the business makes no additional profits. in the words of Stuart Brioza of SBP, 'we basically run a non profit company')
                All of this is why this discussion is so important. Educating our clientele is a chefs job. Educating ourselves as consumers should be in every home discussion when it comes to food purchasing.
                Currently there is a 'rubber meets the road' problem. Everyone agrees is theory that hormones and antibiotics are bad (that they are fat soluble and concentrate in grossly unhealthy doses is animal fat, that we then consume), that we should be stewards of the ocean, not treating it like the gold rush (grab all you can before the other guy does!) and that healthily grown, in season vegetables should be the cornerstone of our diet (less impact on the earth to grow veg than meat). But when it comes time to choose our next meal, finance, convenience and even trends (hot new restaurant? deep fried bacon and butter on a stick from a food truck guy fiery once said was cool?) seem to distract people, with finance being the only understandable obstacle.
                Better food IS more expensive.
                Every single day, we have guests that question the price of an ingredient/dish, because they know they can buy cheaper food elsewhere. Sadly, less people care about the reasons. I have heard more "oh I don't care about that stuff" comments that I would have ever imagined when I explain to guests that this food is healthier, more sustainable, even more delicious.
                This conversation is important, which is why I joined CH to add my rambling comments, when I should be butchering that beautiful whole hog we got in yesterday or the amazing, fresh rabbit we just received this morning.
                Continue this conversation, education is the key. If you have ever been to a factory farm, you would never eat commodity food again. Pressure your favorite restaurants/chefs to be more forthcoming/transparent. Be vocal at the grocery store/farmers market. Its not only our health, but the health of or society. In this area, in this time in history, there is no excuse.

                3 Replies
                1. re: apaone

                  "Hormones and antibiotics … concentrate in grossly unhealthy doses is animal fat, that we then consume …"

                  That's not true.

                  You can't tell from lab tests whether beef came from an animal that was treated with hormones. The more substantial arguments against them are that they have inhumane side effects on the animals, negative environmental impacts, or are a scam promoted by drug companies with no economic benefit to anyone else.


                  The main argument against routine use of antibiotics is that it breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The USDA requires that antibiotics be withdrawn long enough before slaughter that they are flushed from the system.


                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    "Because it is not possible to differentiate between the hormones produced naturally by the animal and those used to treat the animal, it is difficult to determine exactly how much of the hormone used for treatment remains in the meat or the milk." is different than your interpretation above. It doesn't say there isn't any. It says its hard to differentiate between natural hormones and added. That implies (almost directly states that there is) that it is still present in the body, but its even more insidious because of the difficulty to differentiate. N.B. 15 year old publishing of the study, meaning the study took place in the 90's. Always trying to build a better mouse trap? So are 'food' companies that are trying to maximize profits and make better growth devices. the other article is by consumer reports. its purpose is to advise the consumer on the legalese of labeling as well as the price difference in production. it touches on superbugs, but never pretends to be a medical paper. if you think that the drugs we take or give aren't fat soluble, you are mistaken, its that simple. while i am aware of your personal stance (it seems you enjoy buying better meat wholesale, but are not concerned in the restaurant setting; a common approach), saying "that's not true", especially when it comes to your sited sources, i think you are doing a disservice to those that are looking to this site/your comments for clarity/direction.

                    1. re: apaone

                      Every mammal, human beings included, has estradiol, testosterone, etc. in its blood and thus in its tissues. These are small molecules, so unlike something like a protein, there is no difference between naturally produced estradiol and artificially synthesized estradiol - they're the same molecule. The only problem would be if a) artificially administered hormones lead to abnormally elevated concentrations of those hormones in the animal AND b) if eating an animal with abnormally elevated hormone concentrations had health effects in people - something which has not yet been shown.

                      Even if it were shown that consumption of treated meat led to stuff like precocious puberty, the solution would probably just be less meat. People eat more meat than they used to anyway, so it would be hard to tease out whether any health effects were the result of changes in agricultural practices or simply changes in diet (you're still ingesting some concentration of these same hormones even if you eat exclusively untreated meat).