Courtesy of Walmart
Plenty of invective greeted last Thursday's announcement by Walmart that it will reduce sodium and sugar and eliminate trans fats in all its private-label foods, support local, or more-local, growers of produce, and develop a nutritional seal of approval to put on the front of all packages whose contents meet an as-yet-undefined set of nutritional criteria.
How could it be otherwise? Everything the country's largest retailer does, and particularly its history with unions and labor, is controversial. Its responsibility is to shareholders, not the public good; if it's doing anything "good," that's just a way to pressure the First Lady to show up at a press conference it sponsors, winning it an avalanche of good press with the very communities it ruthlessly exploits. As for local produce, if you think it has any intention of supporting small farmers, ask all the small businesses it has driven into bankruptcy—if there are any left to ask.
Yes, Walmart is a business, and won't do anything that will damage its growth and profits. But it's also doing something no large retailer has done voluntarily.
The cynicism is as understandable as it is inevitable. But it's important to keep an eye on the effect any action by Walmart can have, as I reported last year, when I got word before Walmart was ready to announce it of a company initiative to buy more produce than it previously had from regions where staple crops had long been commercially eclipsed. In this case, as with the local-buying plan, any possible benefits were quickly discounted.
Yes, Walmart is a business, and won't do anything that will damage its growth and profits. But it's also doing something no large retailer has done voluntarily (or is saying it will; the White House plans to hold the company accountable with independent progress reports tracking how well it's adhering to the timelines it announced). Jane Black took the measured tone I advocate in her piece for the Food Channel, and a "Room For Debate" exchange on nytimes.com featured more of it. This from our Kelly Brownell:
The public health community, and to a lesser extent the government, have put pressure on the food industry to clean up its act. Most attention has been on food manufacturers, large companies like Nestlé, Unilever, Kraft, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. But the food sellers are also important.
Enter Wal-Mart, the country's largest food seller. Wal-Mart has been holding discussions with nutrition experts to change for the better, and...its actions could ripple through the food supply industry in powerful ways...Millions of people could benefit, but this new program could have more far-reaching impact. Wal-Mart's reducing the sugar in its soft drinks sends a powerful message to Coca-Cola and PepsiCo: do the same or be seen as obstructing the effort to improve health and lower health care costs.
Michael Jacobsen, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, concluded, "All told, Wal-Mart will be saving thousands of lives, something it should be very proud of."
No one wants to be caught unequivocally endorsing Walmart. But the level of cynicism is, as one of the White House strategists involved in the planning with Walmart pointed out in a conversation with me yesterday afternoon, unwarranted. The strategist, who did not want to be named because of his continuing involvement, was talking about the nutritional seal of approval Walmart announced it will be putting on its private-label products by the end of the year. These seals will denote products that meet a series of nutritional criteria that are now under review--and Wal-Mart is aiming to make sure that 20 to 25 percent of its private-label foods meet those criteria, which are likely to focus on levels of sodium, fat, and sugars.