It was probably days—but it may only have been hours—after SFR published a piece on the opening of the Sunflower Farmers Market in Santa Fe that I was contacted by an account executive from the Hoffman Agency (slogan: "Helping technology companies communicate compelling messages across the globe").

The executive wanted to know if I would like to discuss meat with Natural Grocers (Vitamin Cottage) CEO Kemper Isely.

"Sure," I said. After all, I like talking about meat as much as the next guy.

I'm told the timing of the inquiry was a coincidence, and that may be so, but it's hard to believe I interviewed Sunflower Farmers Market CEO Mike Gilliland about his new store—aimed at competing with Natural Grocers—and was completely by chance offered an interview with Isely. He was dying to talk about how "some" stores "like" Sunflower sell "natural" meat—which customers confuse with higher-priced organic meat—at rock-bottom prices.

As it happens, I agree with Isely, regardless of what his motives are.

If I were a benevolent dictator, Sunflower would not be allowed to use the term "farmers market" in its name, seeing as it's a blatant misrepresentation or, in legal terms, a stinking lie. And, if I were a benevolent dictator, the word "natural" would have a meaningful definition.

The United States Department of Agriculture mandates that meats labeled as "natural" contain no artificial ingredients or added color and be "minimally processed." It sounds reasonable, but it only applies to the processing of the meat, not the raising of the animal. Organic certification, on the other hand, regulates how animals are raised and treated and what they are fed.

A steak labeled "natural" not only can legally come from a penned-in, grain-fed, cannibalistic steer pumped up on antibiotics and freaky hormones, it most likely does. It's a legal loophole that allows consumers to think they're buying healthy products and supporting progressive food policy while really they are just feeding the same old unsustainable factory farming.

Adding to the confusion, most New Mexico ranchers have no means to transport animals to organic-certified slaughter houses. This means the meat they sell can't be labeled organic, but also shouldn't be confused with the so-called natural stuff sold in groceries. The best thing for careful shoppers to do is ask how the animals were raised and what they were fed. If you can't get an answer—move on.

Price is the determining factor for many people when they buy expensive items like meat, but cheaper meats hold a greater cost for everyone.

"If we actually paid the cost of our factory farming, it would be more expensive to buy it than strict organically-raised meat," Isely says. "The government subsidizes the corn that is fed to factory-farmed animals, and we don't really make those factory farms pay for the pollution that's produced or the pesticides and medications that sink into the land and run off into our rivers."

Somehow, it sounds icky when he says it.

Of course, if all meat were grass-fed and med-free and we paid the true cost of it, we'd eat less of it. While it's sad to think of not having bacon with every breakfast and not being able to grab an offensive fistful of by-product-saturated meat tubes at the liquor store counter, any effort that has significant simultaneous impacts on health, energy consumption and environmental sustainability might just be worth considering.

Isely's views on meat didn't exactly make me a Natural Grocers convert—even though I like the store's all-organic produce and its "no disposable bags" policy—as I still prefer to buy meats from the Santa Fe Farmers Market or La Montañita Co-op, where I can be certain of
shopping inside the Santa Fe food shed.

Better yet, visit a local rancher and look that animal in the eye first. If you can't do that, maybe you should give up meat altogether.

Natural Grocers
3328 Cerrillos Road