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Hard to Digest United Natural Foods

Stocks in this article: UNFISYYBNNYKRFTWFMKR

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It certainly didn't take long for the Street to hop back on the United Natural Foods (UNFI) bandwagon, with the stock price up 6% within a week.

I say "back on" here because prior to these recent gains, shares of United Natural -- a leading distributor of organic foods -- were cooling off, down by as much as 11% since the company hit a new 52-week high in October. The valuation (then) was considered hard to digest. But things have changed.

All it took was for Sysco Foods (SYY) to announce a blockbuster $3.5 billion deal for US Foods. Given the rate at which Sysco has been gobbling up the competition, there is now speculation that United Natural, which would immediately expand Sysco's market in organic and natural foods, might be next. But I wouldn't bid up these shares, at least not solely on the basis of M&A speculation.

While Sysco is no stranger to acquisitions (US Foods is one of more than a dozen companies Sysco has picked up this year alone), it very rarely, if ever, overspends. Although United Natural has developed a strong track record of exceptional growth results, it's hard to see the value that Sysco would acquire.

I'm not suggesting that United Natural wouldn't be a "natural fit" to Sysco. But since company generates what amounts to less-than one-seventh of Sysco's annual revenue, I don't immediately see what (if anything) United Natural can offer to Sysco that Sysco couldn't already duplicate on its own, given its massive infrastructure.

Plus, as I've said regarding Annie's (BNNY), a packaged food company that specializes in natural and organic comfort foods, there is no longer a clear delineation between Annie's products and those with lower price tags from the likes of Kraft (KRFT), which has also entered the organic market.

It's true that -- as with Annie's -- United Natural has built a strong name for itself on the relationships that have been established with leading retailers like Whole Foods (WFM), Kroger (KR) and so on. But that was when the term "organic and natural" had a special aura. Today, I can't say that's still the case. I believe the Street will soon wake up to this reality.

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