Instead of admitting that it has, in the past, sold food with too much sodium, salt and sugar, Walmart (NYSE: WMT) has made a public relations bonanza of its decision to sell more healthy food. The world’s largest retailer will put “Great for You” badges on products backed by “rigorous nutrition criteria.” Walmart has had a sudden change of heart about what it sells to its customers.
One reason Walmart suddenly has taken the action is First Lady Michelle Obama, the poster child for the new initiative. Walmart went so far as to get a quote from her for its press release about Great for You. She said:
Today’s announcement by Walmart is yet another step toward ensuring that our kids are given the chance to grow up healthy. Just over a year ago, Walmart committed to save shoppers a billion dollars in their cost of fruits and vegetables and the fact that Walmart exceeded this number is a real accomplishment and a milestone in our efforts to support families eating better. In addition, the healthy seal will be another tool for parents to identify the best products for their kids. Giving parents the information they need to make healthy choices is a key piece of solving childhood obesity.
The quality of Walmart food products probably was never an issue for her and her family. Mrs. Obama did not mention it, but she likely was never a regular patron of Walmart. She almost certainly is not now, either.
The Walmart decision matches ones made by other huge American companies that sell food, either fast food or food that people take home to cook. McDonald’s (NYSE: MCD) is the best example. Last summer, the largest fast-food chain said it would offer low-calorie options for children’s meals. McDonald’s also said it would reduce sodium content in some of its food by 15% by 2015.
Stores and fast-food companies have tried to create the illusion that they have only recently gotten the FDA list of food content by product and studies about which food ingredients undermine healthy eating habits. What actually happened is that pressure from the government and public to cut back on the fatty foods that people love most became overwhelming. Some of the blame for unhealthy foods does fall with the customers. But to turn what should have been done some time ago into a press event masks a lack of actions — ones not taken by these companies for years.
Douglas A. McIntyre