For Sarah Agudo, “Where’s the beef?” isn’t nearly as important a question as “Where’s the beef from?” For the last year and a half, Agudo has been asking Mission District restaurants the second question, along with inquiries about their pork, lamb, rabbit and poultry.

It started in the summer of 2012, when the pescetarian was on her way to dinner with a meat-eating friend. As the two walked near 22nd and Valencia, they debated the reasons for their different dietary choices. Agudo, a corporate lawyer, made the moral argument for abstaining from meat. Her friend objected.

“She said something like, ‘Well that’s fine, but I always eat at good restaurants,’” Agudo recalls. The friend pointed to Beretta — “a haute pizza palace,” as The New York Times called it — and said, “I’m sure all these places like that only use really good meat.”

Agudo wasn’t so sure. And what did “good meat” even mean?

The next day, pen and notepad in hand, she began canvassing the restaurants in her neighborhood — San Francisco’s Mission District, with its abundant and diverse culinary offerings — intent on finding out.

A graduate of Cornell and Harvard, Agudo was about to learn a lot more than she expected, and a lot less than she’d hoped.

“It was naïve to think that, even if everyone was very accommodating, that I could walk in and get every restaurant in the Mission’s answers in one night,” she says.

Quickly realizing a project like this would take much longer than she had expected, she recruited some help, first from friends and later from Mission Local.

[Read Agudo’s take here.]

The Findings

A year and a half after Agudo first started making her inquiries, and a few months after I began helping (as Mission Local’s restaurant reporter at the time), I convinced her that enough was enough. We simply couldn’t expect every restaurant in the Mission to cooperate. We had contacted more than 100 restaurants and received information on meat sources from 65 of them.

(For the record: Every one of the 36 restaurants that ignored or declined our requests had at least two opportunities to do so. One restaurant with a meat-heavy menu, Rosamunde, deflected eight separate requests for source info.).

The sample set, I argued, was large enough to gain insight from, and it’s impossible to learn anything from an ongoing project that never gets published. So we decided to take the next step: cleaning and organizing the data, adding location information, and recruiting more help to visualize the data. Jessica Hamel, a peer of mine at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, volunteered to turn it into the interactive map you see below.

The map provides a view into the geographic distribution of the various sources. What I find most interesting is that although the Mission is a relatively small neighborhood within a relatively small major U.S. city, following the supply chain of just its meat and poultry takes you all across the country.

For me, the map acts as a simple illustration — and a much-needed reminder — of the impact that our eating decisions have on our communities and, in effect, the country and world.

The problem, however, is that geographical distribution doesn’t tell you much more than how far a product traveled. And even that is obscured by the intricacies of the restaurant food-supply chain. An animal might have spent most of its life in Oregon, but because it is finished at, say, Harris Ranch in Coalinga, and that’s the address the meat supplier lists, then the dot on the map shows Coalinga, and Oregon never makes an appearance.

Additionally, many of the sources listed are actually middlemen (wholesalers and distributors) and retailers (butcher shops and grocery stores), with untold numbers of their own sources that never appear on the map. One restaurant told us the meat they use is whatever is on sale at Costco.

Furthermore, a supplier being “local” says nothing of the quality of the meat that it supplies, nor the animal-welfare practices that go into raising that animal.

There are other shortcomings of the data that must be addressed, but first, some key takeaways:

  • The restaurants contacted varied widely in cuisine and price point. Of the responding restaurants, 19 are designated on Yelp’s price scale with a single dollar sign, 34 with double dollar signs, and 12 with three dollar signs. (There are no restaurants in the Mission District at Yelp’s four-dollar-sign price point).
  • 75 different meat and poultry suppliers were named as sources.
  • While the majority of suppliers came up only once or twice, 13 different restaurants named Golden Gate Meat Company — a family-owned, San Francisco-based meat distributor — as a source, making it the most often-cited meat purveyor among Mission District restaurants.
  • Of the listed suppliers, 37 are what we identified as end sources, 26 are middlemen and 12 are retail-level sources.

Problems with the data stem mostly from the fact that giving up this information is entirely voluntary. Restaurants that use better sources have more of an incentive to broadcast their sources than restaurants that use more conventional meat, and thus might be over-represented in the sample.

I phoned Agudo in December, after we’d had some time to reflect on the data, to get some final thoughts on the project.

“Are you satisfied with the outcome?” I asked. “Was it worth it?”

“The only reason I’m satisfied with it is because it seems to perk people’s interest, and it I think helps shape the kinds of questions we need to be asking,” she said. “But more than that it’s shown what we don’t know.”

The Impact

Last fall, at an event put on by the Berkeley Food Institute featuring the former deputy secretary of the USDA, Berkeley journalism professor and food guru Michael Pollan sat on stage and told a packed Wheeler Auditorium that one of the most important things the people in the audience could do for the future of the food movement was to ask, when eating at a restaurant, where the meat came from.

Agudo, who sat next to me, flashed a smile of validation. Later, in response to an email, Pollan (who I’m now taking a food-writing workshop with) elaborated.

“Asking where your food comes from is a good way to persuade retailers, and therefore in turn wholesalers, that consumers care,” Pollan replied. “The question strikes a blow for transparency. If the story behind your food is of interest to the eater, then the value of a ‘good story’ — a defensible one — increases, and people all along the supply chain will strive to be able to tell one.”

In the process of writing this article, nearly everyone I spoke with asked me if I’d seen Portlandia. They were referring to a sketch from the first episode of the show, in which a couple ordering dinner at a restaurant submit their waitress to a barrage of questions about the provenance of the chicken. Not satisfied with the dossier the waitress provides — the chicken’s name was “Colin,” by the way — the Portlanders leave the restaurant to inspect the farm.

It’s a funny sketch, but it’s easy to laugh at the silly and self-righteous “locavores” with their upper-middle-class guilt. Less funny is the fact that outside of progressive silos like Portland or stretches of San Francisco, cost is a much more powerful driver of food choices than ethics.

Last fall, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future published a follow-up report to the Pew Commission’s 2008 warnings about the meat industry’s practices, including its propensity to use antibiotics to promote animal growth. In the intervening five years, the Johns Hopkins Center found, regulators hadn’t done enough of the things they promised to do.

The report also pointed to the public’s startling lack of awareness about the 9.8 billion animals raised and slaughtered in the United States each year. “Most Americans have no idea how and where those animals are raised,” it said.

A Growing Concern

I visited Golden Gate Meat Company’s 12,000-square-foot facility on 7th Street in SoMa on a sunny Thursday morning. It was their busiest time of year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and men in white butcher coats hustled to load a company truck with cardboard boxes labeled St. Helens Beef and Golden Gate’s own branded ground beef, among others.

Jim and Patti Offenbach founded the company in 1977, but the family’s history of butchery and food-service experience goes back at least two more generations. On my visit, I met Justin Offenbach, their son, who now runs the sales operation (his sister, Sarah, works alongside him).

The company brands itself as a specialist in natural and organic meats, distributing products from more than 100 different sources — 100 missing dots on the map.

“We started that probably about 15 years ago,” Offenbach says. “It was right when customers were first starting to ask questions about where your meat’s raised and what kind of products you have. We kind of sensed the direction that people were very inquisitive and really wanted to know about backgrounds of animals and welfare.”

Offenbach says his company services more than 1,500 accounts in the greater Bay Area, stretching from San Jose to Sacramento and including the East Bay and Napa Valley. He estimates about 500-600 clients in San Francisco alone.

And the company continues to grow. A retail butcher shop in the Ferry Building Marketplace opened a decade ago. And in 2010, Golden Gate purchased Hagemann Meat Co. in Santa Rosa to help cover the North Bay and beyond.

“We started bringing in exclusive lines of natural products in all different animals — beef, pork, veal, lamb, chicken,” Offenbach says. “So that’s the direction that we’ve taken and that’s why I think we’ve grown so much, too. Because we have a name for being natural and humanely raised products.”

While the “natural” food label can be deceptive — it merely means food is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients — Offenbach says Golden Gate’s “natural” products are certified under the Never Ever program, which requires adherence to three rules: no antibiotics, no growth hormones and no animal by-products allowed in the feed.

Organic meat, which is more strictly regulated by the USDA, makes up less of Golden Gate’s inventory. “I don’t have too much organic just because it is very expensive, there’s very little out there, and the demand for it is not that much,” Offenbach says.

To be clear: Golden Gate also carries commodity meat, “because there are restaurants that want that,” Offenbach says. But the ratio of natural and organic to commodity meat the company carries is now close to 50/50.

As for Offenbach, he prefers to eat organic whenever possible. “I bring the best of the best from here home,” he says.

Telling a Better Story

But Golden Gate Meat Company is merely a middleman for its products — a position that doesn’t earn the company shout-outs on any restaurant menus.

But even celebrity brands can fade as operations change ownership. Take the case of Niman Ranch.

Agudo and I took a meandering drive up Highway 1 on a November Sunday to visit Bill Niman and his wife, Nicolette, at their home in Bolinas, the original Niman Ranch.

It was mistrust of the food system and a desire to get off the grid, not a desire to become a rancher, which led Niman out to the bucolic coastal town in 1969 to pasture-raise pigs and goats without cages or antibiotics. By the late ‘70s, Niman (rhymes with “Simon”) partnered with local writer Orville Schell and began providing their truly natural meat to neighboring health food stores under the Niman-Schell name.

Café Beaujolais founder Margaret Fox read about Niman-Schell in the San Francisco Chronicle and became the company’s first restaurant customer. Zuni Café and Chez Panisse soon followed, listing the source of their meat right next to the name of the dish it constituted.

“It wasn’t like we had some marketing genius or we even understood what was going on,” Niman says. “Of course it turned out that—“

“—they were building your brand,” Nicolette, an environmental attorney and author, finishes her husband’s sentence.

“People would call us from all over the country because they would go to Chez Panisse and Zuni,” Niman says.

By the mid-90s, Niman was looking to expand, and Schell got out of the company to become the dean of the Berkeley J-School. Niman took on two new partners and rebranded as Niman Ranch, expanding nationally over the next few years, into places like Whole Foods and Chipotle.

But the skepticism about the food system that led Niman out to the pasture and off the grid is still strong today.

“I think you have to do a qualitative analysis on everything you eat,” he says. “There are so many charlatans — stuff that looks like, sounds like, and is supposedly natural, whatever that means, and it’s not. It’s ubiquitous now. While it looks like the supply has grown, it’s kind of a watered down supply.

“We know people that are selling stuff with all sorts of descriptions about this or that that they’re doing, and we know it’s not true. And that kind of stuff is rampant, especially with ‘grass-fed.’ There’s a lot of beef that’s being sold as ‘grass-fed’ that’s not grass-fed. None of that stuff is enforced, especially against small operators.”

And there are outright dishonesties on restaurant menus, too. “Bill was so familiar with all his customers, even at the time that the company was getting quite large,” Nicolette says. “We would just be walking down the street and he would look at a menu board and go, ‘Oh my god! They haven’t bought from us in five years! And we’re on there!’ It happened all the time.”

As far as labels go, “Niman Ranch” is also a bit of a misnomer itself these days. After years of expansion but no profits, the company sold a controlling interest to Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings in 2006. Bill Niman left the company the following year because of disagreements with changes the new owners made to the company’s cattle operations.

“They sold the feedlot. They no longer feed their cattle. They buy them from other people,” Niman says. “They buy cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse or at the slaughterhouse.

“They’re not any worse than any of the other brands. They’re all the same. Natural meats have been commoditized.”

After our conversation, Niman took us on a tour of his property, now rebranded as BN Ranch. (He’s prohibited from using his last name in any meat-selling operations as per the terms of his separation from Niman Ranch).

As Niman walked us through his flock of heritage turkeys, someone asked if he’d clipped their wings to prevent them from flying over the short fence that surrounded their pen. “Why would they want to fly away?” Niman said. “They have everything provided for them here.”

Next we visited cattle grazing on the pasture. Here came the answer to the “what is good meat?” question. A calf came innocently bounding up to inspect its human visitors, milk dripping from its nose. The animal had the disposition of a young creature that had never known fear or suffering. The calf played, puppy-like, with Niman’s Great Dane. In about two years, it would grow into a cow that would be slaughtered and turned into good meat.

Here was the missing piece of our project. Our line of questioning had been too simple. We’d been asking only half of what Bill Niman asks every time he orders meat at a restaurant: “Where does it come from and how was it raised?”

I left the ranch feeling like I’d witnessed something lost in the world, something that the supermarkets and fast-food dollar menus have obscured. What I’ve learned through this project is that the things we don’t know about our food system greatly outnumber the things we do know, as a public. But the only way to even hope to change that is by asking questions, no matter how simple or silly they may sound, over and over, until the answers become the ones we want to hear.