Consumer stocks are now as risky as they've ever been. Unemployment's historically high, consumers are spooked, and subpar earnings abound, as companies pay the price for lost competitive advantage or fiscal irresponsibility. But tough times can offer investors the best chance to buy stocks.

Even if stock prices are low, investors still need to be careful. Many companies simply won't survive the recession. And even if you love an investment, it's always Foolish to play devil's advocate, probing for its potential weak spots. To keep you and your portfolio ready for anything, I've highlighted two reasons to loathe packaged-foods producer ConAgra (NYSE:CAG).

Subpar profitability
Last week, I lavished love on ConAgra like so much salt and butter on a bowlful of Orville Redenbacher. This time around, I'm doing my best to skewer the maker of brands such as Chef Boyardee, Marie Callender's, and Slim Jim.

Whether it's a high-flying tech name, an oil-patch player, or a mundane consumer-staples company, a good investment comes down to corporate profit. Now, food staples may seem like a straightforward business, but there's plenty of room for operating profit to fluctuate among competitors, in everything from R&D and marketing expense to input costs, inventory management, and plant efficiency.

In the table below, I've highlighted how ConAgra stacks up against peers on operating margin, a measure of core business profitability that excludes losses or gains associated with interest, taxes, and extraneous items:


Market Cap

Dividend Yield

Operating Margin

Price-to-Sales Ratio


$9.2 B




H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ)

$11.9 B




Kraft (NYSE:KFT)

$41.5 B




General Mills (NYSE:GIS)

$19.0 B




J.M. Smucker (NYSE:SJM)

$6.1 B




Data from Yahoo! Finance on Sept. 4

Clearly, ConAgra has lagged its peer group in operating profitability, which is reflected in the stock's depressed price-to-sales ratio.

The company did generate about $300 million in supply-chain savings in fiscal year 2009, and additional operating savings are in management's crosshairs. But for now, ConAgra's got to prove that it can be that lean, mean food machine.

Organic growth sans organic foods?
Previously, I hailed ConAgra's product portfolio as a well-positioned stockpile for recessionary times. However, unlike food-sector majors J.M. Smucker, Heinz, General Mills, Kellogg (NYSE:K), and Dean Foods (NYSE:DF), the company is missing an organic product line. ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin claims that all-natural is "almost the same thing in people's minds," but that seems like a stretch, given the blistering growth of organics over the past five or so years.

And even if Rodkin's view accurately describes the company's existing customer base, the absence of organic brands could crimp ConAgra's ability to gain market share, once the economy turns and consumers feel they can splurge on those higher-priced organic brands.

What do you think?
We've made our Foolish case on ConAgra -- now it's your turn. Do you loathe ConAgra? Love it? Share your comments below.

Other Fools in loathing:

J.M. Smucker is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. H.J. Heinz is an Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mike Pienciak doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.