Regardless of what's motivated the retail giant to come up with its new front-of-pack labels, they'll give consumers valuable information.
Last week, in conjunction with the announcement of the new "Great for You" front-of-pack icon that Walmart introduced for its private-label products, which Marion Nestle summarized, I moderated a panel on the effects it might have on underserved communities, and how closely or not the criteria for the icon do and don't match the Institute of Medicine's report on and recommendations for front-of-pack labeling last November -- recommendations that the FDA has yet to act on. I asked Walmart to include a nutritionist who'd worked on the IOM report, and so they invited Tracy Fox, a former president of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior who served on the IOM committee working on front-of-pack labeling and has been involved with other in-store nutrition ratings systems, particularly the respected Guiding Stars, from Hannaford Brothers. (None of the panelists, including me, was paid by Walmart to appear, though two -- Josh Wachs, chief strategy officer of Share Our Strength, and Brent A. Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens -- represented organizations that have received grants from the Walmart Foundation.)
The first suspicion of anyone reading about the icon is that Walmart is making an end run around the IOM and the FDA: cherry-picking nutritional criteria that will better sell products -- like Froot Loops, which notoriously merited the "Smart Choices" seal of approval devised by manufacturers and grocer groups. Then comes the suspicion that this is just another way to dupe consumers into buying highly processed foods, with all the added-on costs of processing and none of the benefits of unprocessed, unpromoted fresh food, which never has marketing muscle behind it.
The second suspicion is fairly indisputable. Walmart has a natural interest in selling its private-label Great Value and Marketside brand lines, and increasing sales relative to the nationally branded, competitive items it also carries. But the criteria are sufficiently stringent as to apply only to 20 percent of that line, and Walmart designed the icon to include no typography, branding, or colors that are core parts of its other graphics; it is offering the icon to any manufacturer that wants to use it. And it is introducing the icon not on packages of processed private-label foods but in the produce aisles of its stores, because it can put up banners and shelf labels before its private-label suppliers -- all of them contractors, none owned by Walmart -- can retool packages to show the icon, which it says will take a year for many products. (Ratings from Guiding Stars, NuVal, and other ratings systems do not appear on boxes, just shelf tags.)
Whatever preemptive, competitive, sales-minded motives might have propelled the "Great for You" program, it will produce data that no one else is collecting.
As for cherry-picking criteria, the main criticism nutritionists have so far is the figure of 25 percent added sugars, which rather than suggesting an upper limit for what is recommended makes acceptable the idea that that upper limit is perfectly fine for any food that is, or isn't, supposed to be sweet -- and, of course, there's a recent call to put sugar in a category with alcohol and other dangerously addictive substances. And even nutritionists who would never call for a ban on sugar would call for foods to be minimally sweetened or have no added sugar as all. Still, even this generous level excludes almost all cereals in the Walmart private-label line.
And as for the main criticism of setting as de facto industry standard criteria of its own choosing before the FDA can act -- the criticism I went into the panel with -- Andrea Thomas, Walmart vice president of sustainability, said in response to my questions that when the FDA does issue its own guidelines, Walmart will be open to changing its criteria to conform with what the FDA issues. The "Great for You" criteria, she said, are "malleable." Reflecting a truth that frustrates all observers, she suggested that FDA guidelines could be "years down the road," and said that in customer surveys consumers say they want and will use a quick recommendation tool now to help them pick good and healthy food for their families -- as the confusing Facts up Front thumbnail icons industry came out with, emphasizing the good over the bad and including a welter of numbers and percentages, do not.