Today’s Winners Could Be Tomorrow’s Sinners

The latest food scare story had some real meat to it.
In fact, meat was the dish of the day.
New guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that processed meats like sausages and bacon can cause cancer.
Even worse for carnivores, it said red meats of all sorts – maybe just a hearty Sunday roast – probably does cause cancer, too.
As you’d expect, debate ensued and many people said the risks (or at least the media’s coverage of the risks) were being exaggerated.
I’ll leave that to you, Google, and your own dining habits.
What’s interesting to me is how such swings in taste might affect our long-term investments.

More than lip service

Take a company like the US burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill.
It’s no exaggeration to say that among my US colleagues at The Motley Fool this company is beloved.
No wonder, if you look at the share price – up 1,400% since it came to market in 2006.
And many of our US newsletter services have been along for at least part of that ride.
But it’s not just the financial performance that impresses us Fools.
The company treats staff well, for example, at least by the standards of the hospitality industry. Its well-paid managers often worked their way up from the humblest starter positions.
Chipotle has also raised the bar far above standard fast food fare when it comes to ingredients and quality.
Where possible it sources locally produced organic foods and it’s trying to eliminate genetically modified stuff from its menus, too.
As for the meat that stuffs its burritos, Chipotle looks for pasture raised dairy and responsibly raised livestock.
And this is not just lip service.
When Chipotle became concerned about the animal welfare credentials of one of its suppliers early this year, it yanked pork ‘carnitas’ off its menu in many stores – a significant move given the little snacks make up about 6% of its revenues.
It was just another example of the sort of conscientious capitalism that drew Foolish investors to the company in the first place.

Puff baddies

Will things look so rosy if it turns out Chipotle has been helping its young and passionate millennial customers to get cancer?
No more than McDonalds or the local steakhouse have, of course, but just going on the logic of those new WHO recommendations.
It sounds fanciful. But health stories invariably do in the early days.
For a comparison, in the 1930s and ’40s cigarette makers could still get doctors to endorse their deadly products in advertising. 
Cigarettes were known to cause coughing, but it would take decades for everyone to believe the solid link to cancer.
As late as 1960s, only one-third of doctors thought fags were the smoking gun that had caused lung cancer rates to skyrocket.

Trick or treat?

It seems unlikely to me that red meat eating will ever be spoken about in the same wheezy breath as smoking, but that’s not the point.
And I’m no doctor, anyway – but luckily you’re not reading me for medical advice.
The point I’m making is that even the most beloved products and brands of one era can look very different from a subsequent vantage point, when new knowledge comes to light.
For another example – one that lies somewhere between cigarettes and this sausage scare in terms of the evolving story – look at sugar.
Virtually everyone now understands that too much sugar makes you fat, and that this can contribute to a range of grim illnesses, from diabetes to heart disease.
More recently, a link between sugar and cancer has emerged, too.
Where does this leave a company like The Coca-Cola Company, whose brand was once as bright and wholesome as apple pie?
Or, closer to home, A.G. Barr, the manufacturer of the marmite-y Scottish drink Irn-Bru, which could conceivably face a sugar tax in the UK if celebrity chef Jamie Oliver gets his way?
Even a modern globe-spanning titan like Starbucks Corporation could be hit if you consider the sheer volume of sugar that augments its coffee, or resides in the treats that it sends out the door.
Again, Starbucks is a beloved stock among US Fools, who laud its staff-friendly policies and its customer-centric business model.
But what if…?

The wages of sin

Legendary money man Warren Buffett has often said he loves his big investment in Coca-Cola because he is highly confident that more people will be drinking more Coke in the future – especially compared to how much less certain he can be about the earnings of, say, a technology company or a mining outfit.
And Buffett is surely right.
Even if sugar does come to be seen as a public health hazard, it will be decades – if ever – before it completely drops off the menu.
People still smoke and drink in their billions, after all.
But it’s fascinating to me that even these companies whose products are often considered bombproof could face existential threats.
Note, though, that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be bad investments, even if public attitudes do change.
Academics have found so-called ‘sin stocks’ like tobacco companies have handily beaten the market in the past.
One theory is that some squeamish investors (like me) refuse to put their money into cigarette manufacturers for non-financial reasons, which gives those who do the chance to outperform.
Will the same be true of sausage makers like Cranswick and sugar treat purveyors Patisserie Holdings some day?

Yes, we're in it for the long haul here at the Motley Fool, and we focus on investing in great businesses for years rather than months. It's over that kind of time horizon that we can make sensible judgments on how a business is likely to perform, and whether the price is right.

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Owain owns shares in A.G. Barr. The Motley Fool UK has no interest in any of the shares mentioned.