A meme that's recently enjoying some frequent sharing through social media like Facebook lists well-known consumer brands and companies, stating they are "owned" by genetically modified seeds giant Monsanto (NYSE:MON) and therefore, anyone who doesn't want to consume GMO foods should avoid them. Actually, though, it's not really accurate.
In many cases, some of the listed companies' brands do indirectly rely on Monsanto (and other companies that make genetically modified agricultural products) for ingredients. Are these brands or companies owned by Monsanto? No: That part's hogwash.
Here's the skinny on Monsanto and the grocery list.
Digging deeper into that anti-grocery list
The way Monsanto indirectly sneaks into Americans' grocery carts is simply that it genetically modifies seeds for common crops. So do other companies like DuPont, but they receive far less public scrutiny than Monsanto.
There are different variations of the anti-Monsanto social meme floating around, claiming that companies and brands like Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP), Coca-Cola, and other household names are owned by Monsanto.
This is completely untrue. Those of us who are investors know that consumer giants like these are in fact public companies, owned by shareholders and certainly not Monsanto.
One list making the rounds has some pretty overt mistakes even beyond the ownership claim.
For example, list member "Kraft/Philip Morris" no longer exists. Those two were once a giant conglomerate, and they parted ways about six years ago. More recently, Kraft split up, with Mondelez keeping the high-growth snack sector (including brands like Cadbury and Nabisco) while spinning off Kraft grocery brands, such as the iconic Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
Some outrageous typos also tipped off a list lacking much thought or fact-checking. "Minute Made," "Cool-aid," and "Sweppes" aren't exactly on shopping lists in the first place, because technically, those aren't the products' names.
The spirit of the list can't be denied, though, and it's the reason the meme gets circulated: Many consumers simply aren't armed with the information they desire, and labels and marketing claims can be confusing. For example, brands like Kashi, Bear Naked, and Gardenburger are all owned by Kellogg (NYSE:K); products like these that say they are "natural" aren't necessarily organic. So if you're avoiding GMOs, beware.
The straight dope on GMOs in your food
The majority of American processed food likely contains GM ingredients from crops grown with engineered seeds.That's because just about all conventional U.S. corn and soybeans now have foreign genes. These genes allow soybeans to resist a common herbicide, and engineer corn to produce its own insecticide.
A massive number of American products utilize corn or soy as crucial ingredients. Anyone who pays attention to high-fructose corn syrup has probably noticed how frequently that ingredient substitutes for cane sugar, for example. Consumers' best way to avoid such foods is to buy organic, which by definition excludes genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM) is a safe place for GMO skeptics to shop, since so many of its products are in fact organic, and many of its suppliers have voluntarily certified and clearly labeled their products as GMO-free. In fact, Whole Foods recently announced that it will require all of its suppliers to label products containing GMOs by 2018.
This is a huge victory for all those who have fought in favor of labeling campaigns, even if they'd prefer political action. Voluntary actions in the marketplace are a healthier, more forward-thinking way to go, and you'd better believe Whole Foods is in a better investing position because of it. For many, there's a real market need for information and peace of mind with minimal hard-core research.
Losing a battle, winning the war
Some of the companies on the list did in fact financially band with Monsanto to try to defeat California Proposition 37 in November, which would have required GMO labeling. Companies including Monsanto kicked in somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million to defeat the proposition.
Despite the defeat, though, some huge companies like Wal-Mart and PepsiCo have reportedly met with lawmakers about labeling GMOs. In other words, rumor has it that companies have decided to do something about this, because more and more propositions are cropping up in other states. These companies have deep pockets, but not enough to utilize millions in shareholder money to try to defeat GMO labeling laws in state after state.
The FDA has long contended that genetic modification doesn't materially change the foods in question, but if that's the line the agency and other GMO proponents are selling, many people aren't buying it. They deserve transparency if they'd rather eat GMO-free.
The best defense
Ill-informed memes and incorrect viral phenomena do more harm than good for the issues at hand, as sharable and compelling as these items might seem. Taking online claims with a few grains of salt (and maybe even doing some Snopes.com debunking) helps protect consumers from misinformation.
The good news is that consumers do have access to more information than ever before. The bad news is that we need to subject it to a lot of critical thinking to make sure we even have the real facts. "Buyer, beware" still applies.
Hopefully the more people who shop according to their values, the more companies will choose transparency and meet consumer demands for heightened information. For now, we still have to do a lot of digging into public filings and other accurate sources. It's worth it, though: Being armed with correct information is the best defense.