By Corby Kummer , January 25, 2011 - 4:29pm
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.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.
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.
And that's just what Walmart is voluntarily putting on its boxes—of course, an indication is something that's good rather than what's bad, which might be an unrealistic hope for whatever front-of-pack labeling is eventually adopted or mandated. Yes, the official said, Walmart may well be just responding to consumer demand—but in this case, the demand is for help with making nutritional choices. That demand the company has heard from consumers, he said, comes in two parts. One is for nutritional information of the kind the GMA proposed yesterday. Another is for a quick idea of whether something is healthy and a good choice to feed a family—the kind of endorsement Walmart intends to signal with its new seal. "What you have here," he told me, "is a strong interpretative symbol that takes standards developed with the country's foremost nutritional experts."
Is this just another end-run around FDA regulation? The official made a strong point: once Walmart establishes a precedent for front-of-package seals indicating good nutritional choices based on criteria developed in consultation with leading experts, it will be easier, not harder, for FDA to issue its own regulations calling for those quick signals. "If it's there and supported," he said about the Walmart seal, "that's a lot easier than starting from scratch."
With the new controversy over the perceived industry attempt to pre-empt FDA regulation, the fact that Walmart is going to take a large step toward exactly what the health community is criticizing the industry for not doing could get lost. So could the fact that although the GMA mentions the White House's call for better and more helpful labeling in the very first words of its publicity about the new labels, the new labels are not endorsed by the White House, as Marion , William Neuman in today's New York Times , and others have been quick to point out.
Wait and see. Don't dismiss an initiative that could make a real difference. That's the message coming from many quarters, along with a lot of dismissal. I'm in the wait-and-see camp—and was very glad to hear a key player remind me of the ball we all need to keep an eye on.