by Michael Connor

Walmart, the largest U.S. grocer, announced plans to offer healthier food and to push its suppliers to do the same.

Walmart_Easter_Meal_Solutions_FeatureThe giant low-cost retailer said it would reformulate “thousands of everyday packaged foods” by 2015 by reducing sodium 25 percent and added sugars 10 percent, and by removing all remaining industrially-produced trans fats.

Customers will save about $1 billion per year on fresh fruits and vegetables “through a variety of sourcing, pricing, and transportation and logistics initiatives that will drive unnecessary costs out of the supply chain,” the company said, adding that the price premium on so-called “better-for-you” items, such as reduced sodium, sugar or fat products, will also be “dramatically” reduced.

“Our customers tell us they want a variety of food choices and need help feeding their families healthier foods. At Walmart, we are committed to doing both,” said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart. “We support consumer choice so this is not about telling people what they should eat. 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.”

Walmart has been a lightning rod for criticism on many fronts, including labor rights and the negative impact its “big box” outlets have on local retailers.   In the last several years, the company has launched an aggressive initiative to force its suppliers to provide more environmentally sustainable products.

If only by virtue of the Walmart’s size – and its potential impact on other food suppliers – the healthy food initiative was generally praised by public interest groups.

Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, was quoted in a Walmart press release as saying:  “I applaud Walmart for moving the food industry in a healthier direction.   Walmart’s action should virtually eliminate artificial trans fat and significantly reduce salt in packaged foods and, most importantly, prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes each year.”

James D. Weill, president of Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization, told the New York Times that Walmart seemed to have recognized “how much hunger and food insecurity there is in the country.”

“Our customers have always told us, ’We don’t understand why whole wheat macaroni and cheese costs more than regular macaroni and cheese,’ ” Mr. Dach said. “We’ve always said that we don’t think the Wal-Mart shopper should have to choose between a product that is healthier for them and what they can afford.”

The Wall Street Journal tied Walmart’s announcement to the company’s announced strategy of opening more stores in urban areas of the U.S.

The splashy announcement comes as Wal-Mart, fighting to reverse six consecutive quarters of negative sales at U.S. stores open at least a year, makes an aggressive push into big cities where it faces intense union opposition by arguing, among other things, that it can bring healthier foods to the urban masses.

One of the ways Wal-Mart pledged Thursday to improve the nutrition of Americans, in fact, was to build more stores in inner-city areas dubbed “food deserts” that are under-served by traditional grocery chains.

Walmart’s announcement was made in Washington, D.C., at an event attended by First Lady Michelle Obama, who has led a campaign against childhood obesity.   Mrs. Obama called the Walmart announcement “a huge victory for folks all across this country” and said it has the “potential to transform the marketplace.”

According to a recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., “an obesity pandemic has put pressure on health care systems throughout the world.” The report found that the U.S. currently spends about $160 billion—twice what it did a decade ago- on obesity-related healthcare. “Yet these huge numbers represent only a fraction of the pandemic’s total economic burden on societies.” McKinsey said. “Obesity indirectly costs the United States at least $450 billion annually—almost three times the direct medical cost.”

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