With a growing number of the industry’s largest drug chains putting more emphasis on food, last month’s announcement by Walmart that it will reduce salt and sugar in its processed products in the next five years and lower the price of its fruit and vegetables is likely to be a game changer.


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Inside This Issue - News

Walmart pushes healthy food

February 14th, 2011

BENTONVILLE, Ark. – With a growing number of the industry’s largest drug chains putting more emphasis on food, last month’s announcement by Walmart that it will reduce salt and sugar in its processed products in the next five years and lower the price of its fruit and vegetables is likely to be a game changer.

As the world’s largest seller of foods forces its suppliers to make their products more healthful, others are likely to follow suit.

Walmart’s initiative, announced in a high-profile press conference with first lady Michelle Obama, is likely to push food companies to overhaul a wide range of products.

Industry experts say the move comes as Walmart is trying to overcome opposition to its expansion in urban areas like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., by touting its ability to provide lower-price fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods to residents in areas of these cities who do not have access to traditional grocery stores.

Walmart says its plan consists of five key elements — reformulating thousands of packaged food items by 2015 to reduce sodium and added sugars and eliminate all remaining industrially produced trans fats; making healthier food choices, especially fruits and vegetables, more affordable; putting a seal on the front of food packages to help consumers easily identify more healthful food options; building stores in underserved communities; and increasing its charitable support for nutritional education programs.

“Our customers tell us they want a variety of food choices and need help feeding their families healthier foods,” senior vice president of sustainability Andrea Thomas says. “At Walmart we are committed to doing both.

“We support consumer choice, so this is not about telling people what they should eat,” she explains. “Our customers understand that products like cookies and ice cream are meant to be an indulgent treat. This effort is aimed at eliminating sodium, sugar and trans fat in products where they are not really needed.”

While generally viewed as a positive step toward reining in Americans’ bad eating habits, some have questioned Walmart’s effort for the very reason Thomas mentioned.

“It’s a good thing to lower salt and sugar content of its processed foods, but those are not generally healthful foods,” Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of the New Yorker magazine wrote in a recently opinion piece in the San Francisco Gate Chronicle. “If consumers feel that they are now eating ‘healthy’ even though sugar, salt and/or fat content are still substantial, then it signals that it’s O.K. to eat those processed foods.”

While the impact of Walmart’s efforts has the potential to affect everyone from farmers to grocery stores, drug stores and dollar stores, a few analysts have noted that the company is actually a latecomer to the healthful food movement.

“In this area they’re at least three to five years behind,” Jefferies & Co. analyst Scott Mushkin recently told the Reuters news agency.

Food industry analysts note that many of the industry’s largest suppliers have already reduced sodium in their food products and made other changes to make their offerings healthier. And, they add, other grocers and retailers from other channels have been pushing healthful fare with shelf labels, lower produce prices and more local sourcing.

But most agree that Walmart’s move is likely to have a bigger impact than any of these previous efforts.

“Walmart is such a big buyer of foods, period, and if they’re going to insist on healthier food, this could change the food chain,” Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications and a former Grocery Manufacturers of America executive, told Reuters.

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