WASHINGTON – Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, plans to launch an aggressive initiative to make its food products healthier and its healthy foods cheaper.
In a low-income section of the capital, first lady Michelle Obama joined Wal-Mart executives Thursday as the retail behemoth unveiled its “Nutrition Charter,” a five-part program that will:
• Reformulate thousands of its private-label packaged food items by 2015 so the products contain less sodium and sugar and no partially hydrogenated fats and oils.
• Make healthy choices more affordable, saving U.S. customers about $1 billion a year on fresh fruits and vegetables. Officials said Wal-Mart will do this through a variety of sourcing, pricing, transportation and logistics initiatives. It also plans to cut or eliminate the “price premium” on items containing less sodium, sugar and fats.
• Develop criteria for a simple “front-of-package” seal so consumers may identify healthier options, such as whole-grain cereal, whole-wheat pasta or unsweetened canned fruit.
• Build stores in underserved areas in urban and rural America.
• Step up charitable giving to programs that educate consumers about healthier foods.
Almost a year ago, Obama launched “Let’s Move,” a campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation. Wal-Mart officials said Obama was the “catalyst” for the nutrition charter.
“No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford,” Bill Simon, chief executive of U.S. stores for the Bentonville, Ark.-based company, said in making the announcement.
The retail giant joins a host of packaged food companies’ efforts to cut sodium, sugar and trans fats. Bumble Bee Foods, General Mills Inc., Campbell Soup Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. all announced sodium reductions to their products last year.
Wal-Mart’s size, however, gives it unique power to shape what people eat. The grocery business of the nation’s largest retailer accounts for about 15 percent of the industry in the U.S. and is nearly twice the size of No. 2 competitor Kroger.
Wal-Mart has more than 8,700 stores and restaurants under 59 different names in 15 countries, the company said. It has more than 2 million employees worldwide. In the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2010, its global sales were $405 billion, the company said.
“This is a game changer,” said Michael Hicks, associate professor of economics at Ball State University and author of a book on Wal-Mart’s economic impact. “If Wal-Mart could reduce the prices on healthy food and provide access to them in more places, you could have a measurable effect on incidences of diabetes and heart-related ailments.”
The initiative, Obama said, has the “potential to transform the marketplace and to help American families put healthier food on their tables every single day.”
Company officials said the reformulations would apply to its “Great Value” private brand and that they would collaborate with suppliers to reformulate other national brands in the same categories.
Specifically, they said, by 2015 the company would cut added sugars by 10 percent and sodium by 25 percent in key categories of food products and eliminate industrial trans fats in packaged-food items.
The reduction in sugars would affect products including fruit drinks, canned fruit and grain products; the cut in sodium would affect products such as lunch meats, potato chips and canned pasta.
Wal-Mart officials said if the planned reformulations were adopted by the entire grocery industry, U.S. adults would consume about 47 million fewer pounds of sodium annually – equal to the entire yearly sodium intake of every person in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.
Recently Wal-Mart has positioned itself as a leader on such issues as affordable prescriptions and eco-friendly retailing, showing that the company is taking an increasingly long-term view of its business, said David Schick, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co.
“I think the Wal-Mart of the last three years shows they think about being ahead of trends,” he said. “Wal-Mart is starting to feel more comfortable and has a more integrated playbook between the social message and the economic message.”