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.
As I reported in my piece at the time of last week's announcement, Walmart's seal will be designed to be placed in addition to—not instead of—the front-of-pack labels now under debate. Yesterday's announcement by the Grocery Manufacturing Association of the nutrients it wants to display on a front-of-pack label is, as Marion Nestle and Kelly Brownell immediately pointed out, selective. It's being criticized as an end-run around FDA regulation, which might bar the inclusion of the two helpful nutrients the industry wants to be able to emphasize with equal importance to the other information—which has no indication now that the levels of fats, sodium, or sugar might be higher than current recommendations. The nutrition community won't be happy until front-of-pack labels include some indication—color coding, for example, resembling the U.K.'s "traffic light" nutrition labels—of what is a good choice and what is a bad choice.