by Marion Nestle
Jan 20 2011

What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives?

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

I’ve been on the phone all day with interviewers, most of them totally focused on the first two.  Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying.  They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations.

When I asked Walmart representatives about this, they told me that the FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.  Sorry.  I don’t buy that.

The next two initiatives are much more interesting and have much greater potential to do some good.  Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers?   Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted?  Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

None of the reporters seems to be connecting these initiatives with Walmart’s dismal history of low wages and poor working conditions.  Will these change for the better?

Walmart is not a social service agency.  It is a business and a hugely successful one.  It outsells the largest grocery chains in America by a factor of two.   Today’s New York Times says that 16% of U.S. sales of Kraft products are at Walmart stores.  PepsiCo admits to 10%.   These are huge numbers.

Walmart can get whatever it wants from suppliers—and even get Mrs. Obama to endorse its actions.  That’s power.

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.

That’s why I think the most important of these initiatives is the one to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  That could make a real difference.

Comments

  • Mas
  • January 22, 2011
  • 12:06 pm

A longer post:

Marion

Heard your NPR interview about Walmart and while pruning some young nectarine trees, I cheered.

Lost in the Walmart discussion was the part about providing cheaper fruits and vegetables. On the backs of who? Does that mean Walmart will subsidize growers of fruits and vegetables, take little or no profit and provide produce at cost? I doubt it. So where does “price cutting” come from? Walmart is already an expert at squeezing margins from suppliers – cheaper fruits and vegetables mean exactly that – mass produced commodities, driving out small producers (and probably local suppliers), economies of scale will rule, price not quality counts.

You know all this. Thanks for putting in a word for us little people.

Mas Masumoto

  • andrea
  • January 22, 2011
  • 4:13 pm

a healthy dose of skepticism….sounds like we don’t have all the facts yet.

[...] your fan page by using Hyper Alerts. I started testing it a couple of days ago and it works great. What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives? – I agree with the end of this article – making a processed food healthier does not [...]

[...] on Huffington Post. Second, of course I need to defer to my most favorite nutritionist and author, Dr. Marion Nestle. Another favorite is Jane Black on The Atlantic. Emily Ho on the kitchen, again the 15 comments are [...]

[...] The flip side?  Check out what nutrition advocates like Michael Jacobson and Marion Nestle are saying in this New York Times piece and blog post. [...]

I wonder how ‘Increase charitable support for nutrition programs’ will play out. Interested readers might start here: http://walmartstores.com/CommunityGiving/203.aspx

Fruit & Vegetables are not expensive – especially not at Walmart. Processed and packaged food is the issue, both from a cost and nutrition prospective. If people knew how to cook using those fruit & veggies – as well as unprocessed meat, poultry, grain -, then our diet would be better and at a lower cost. Learning to cook simple healthy and tasty meals is what we need to do.

[...] contrast, read my wonderful colleagues Marion Nestle, Anna Lappe, and Melanie Warner for their more meaningful takes. What do you think? This entry [...]

[...] contrast, read my wonderful colleagues Marion Nestle, Anna Lappe, and Melanie Warner for their more meaningful takes. What do you [...]

[...] wait and see if Wal-Mart lives up to the promises it announced last week, but I’ll stick with Marion Nestle and her advice that pushing for initiatives that reduce the price of fruits and vegetables is the [...]

[...] change would come if Walmart were to truly reduce the price of fresh fruit and vegetables: What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives? But in my opinion, affordability and availability is only one very small part of the problem in a [...]

[...] in the food policy and nutrition world and author of What to Eat, Marion Nestle, points out on her Food Politics blog that Walmart’s nutrition criteria — to be utilized for reviewing their own products — [...]

[...] I suggest reading Marion Nestle’s Jan. 20th post, What are we to think about Walmart’s health food initiatives? [...]

[...] way to read this statement is “industry-self-regulation of nutritional markings.” As Marion Nestle of Food Politics points out, the company could simply be trying to preempt government regulations, regulations that would be [...]

  • S. Rubin
  • January 26, 2011
  • 10:57 am

“Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables. This sounds good, but what about the downside? Will this hurt small farmers?”

No, and if you listened to Andrea Thomas’ response during the Q&A you would know that rather than hurt small farmers, Walmart plans on sourcing billions of pounds of food them in the next 5 years to shorten the supply chain and lower logistics costs. They have also committed to collecting smaller margins on produce items.

See WM’s Sustainable Agriculture initiative, announced in October 2010, to learn more about that.

[...] contrast, read my wonderful colleagues Marion Nestle, Anna Lappé, and Melanie Warner for their more meaningful takes. What do you [...]

[...] Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, remain skeptical, cognizant of Walmart’s for-profit status and somewhat vague, overall implementation [...]

[...] it’s worth reading the always-helpful Marion Nestle, of Food Politics.  In her piece on the initiative, Nestle greets the news about Walmart’s product changes with the same skepticism as other [...]

Hi Marion:

Just FYI, I included this piece in my round-up of bloggers’ opinions about the Walmart deal: http://bit.ly/dV1i3i Later today, my own take.

[...] Marion Nestle, of the website Food Politics, reports that Walmart representatives told her that they are making their own standards because, “The FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.” She isn’t convinced. [...]

  • Daniel K
  • January 31, 2011
  • 10:25 am

This is an interesting story. In the background of such strategies has to be the legal obligations of corporations:
The corporation is legally bound to act in a way that will INCREASE their profits, not for the health of Americans, not to benefit its suppliers and certainly not to help its millions of low-wage workers.
> a good source of WalMart’s practices–is http://www.walmartmovie.com/

Though this WM strategy may be helpful in finally getting the toxic Trans Fats (the US Govt still categorizes as GRAS “Generally Recognized As Safe”) which we know is worse than fried lard, finally out of the food supply. Any food with partially hydrogenated oils, still has trans-fat in it, despite any differing claims that are allowed.

>>I also agree with the other concerns about making fruits and vegetables cheaper. This will discourage people around this country from access to Fresh LOCAL produce and it will encourage mega-farms with mini-wages, especially in Mexico and South America. Will lower fruit and vegetable prices by WalMart encourage the poor environmental practices and use of pesticides, which are ILLEGAL to be used in the United States, sprayed on foods eaten in the United States? Such deals with promoting fruit and vegetable access and consumption I would hope, would ENCOURAGE Local, Organic, bio-dynamic, greener practices and supporting farmers making good choices, using our resources efficiently. Green Jobs are important.

[...] in point is Marion Nestle discussing Walmart’s new healthy foods initiative. Now sketpicism is of course merited anytime a business appears to be doing something that is less [...]

[...] credit: Lordcolus Seen on the Internet today: …if WalMart manages to “drive mom and pop stores out of business” by selling affordable groceries to under-served urban neighborhoods, that’s what I would call [...]

[...] as Marion Nestle points out, the nutritional improvements only apply to processed foods, and Walmart’s new [...]

[...] years ago, Obama attended a Walmart press conference where the company announced a litany of healthy food initiatives. A number of the pledges touched [...]

[...] years ago, Obama attended a Walmart press conference where a association announced a litany of healthy food initiatives. A series of a pledges [...]

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[…] contrast, read my wonderful colleagues Marion Nestle, Anna Lappe, and Melanie Warner for their more meaningful takes. What do you […]

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