Wal-Mart launches healthy food effort

by Keith Nunes
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WASHINGTON — Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. plans to reduce the amount of sodium, added sugars and trans-fatty acids in specific categories of private label and national brand food and beverage products it sells in its stores by 2015. The company also announced it is working to lower the price of the fruits and vegetables it sells in its stores.

“No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford,” said Bill Simon, president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart U.S. “With more than 140 million customers each week, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone.”

In its announcement, Wal-Mart committed to eliminating all “industrial trans fats” from its store brands; to reduce added sugars by 10% in “key categories” of food products; and reduce sodium by 25%. All of the efforts will be accomplished by 2015, according to the company.

Wal-Mart’s effort to reduce trans-fatty acids in some of the products it sells may be considered aggressive.

“Working with suppliers over the next five years, Wal-Mart plans to eliminate all remaining industrial trans fats from the products it sells,” the company said. “Currently, the F.D.A. requires food companies to disclose trans fat on labels when a product has more than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, which can lead our customers to believe they are not consuming trans fats. We aspire to a higher standard, by monitoring ingredient lists to help move the industry to the finish line when it comes to eliminating any remaining industrial trans fats in packaged goods.”

Product categories to be targeted under the sugar reduction initiative include grain-based foods, dairy products, condiments and sauces, fruit beverages and canned fruit. The company emphasized that its sugar reduction effort targets added sugars and not those naturally found in some products.

Product categories Wal-Mart plans to target with its sodium reduction effort include grain-based foods, meat, dairy, sauces and condiments, snacks as well as packaged prepared foods.

The company said its suppliers will be asked to voluntarily fill out a scorecard annually so the retailer may assess and report its progress toward its goals.

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

Through a variety of sourcing, pricing and transportation and logistics efforts, Wal-Mart said it plans to lower the cost of fruits and vegetables and pass some of those savings on to its customers. The company also said it will “reduce or eliminate the price premium on key better-for-you items,” such as reduced sodium, sugar or fat products.

“Our customers often ask us why whole wheat pasta sometimes costs more than regular pasta made by the same manufacturer,” Ms. Thomas said. “We will use our size and scale to reduce the price premium on these types of products whenever possible because customers shouldn’t have to pay more to eat healthier. Customers should be able to choose knowing the biggest difference in these products is not the price, but rather that one is better for you.”

In addition, Wal-Mart announced its intent to enter the front-of-package labeling challenge by developing a seal it said will help consumers identify healthy food options such as whole grain cereal, whole wheat pasta or unsweetened canned fruit. The Food and Drug Administration and the food and beverage industry are currently working on the development of front-of-package labeling programs as well.

Wal-Mart said later this year it will add the seal to its private label products that meet the nutrition criteria established by the retailer, and it also will offer the seal to its national branded products suppliers that have products that qualify.

“The simple front-of-package seal will apply to a small number of healthier products and give customers an easy way to instantly identify food options that are better for them and save them time when shopping our stores,” Ms. Thomas said.

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