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Has Wal-Mart Become More Influential than the FDA?

UPDATED — 10:59am CT…

Michelle Obama has now officially endorsed Wal-Mart’s plan.

Today, Wal-Mart has made yet another strident announcement, this time trumpeting a five-year strategy to increase the volume of healthy foods sold in its stores.

The nation’s largest grocery retailer will aim to reduce the levels of sugar, salt and fats in thousands of its packaged products. In addition to packaged goods, Wal-Mart will hope to incentivize better eating habits by dropping prices of fresh fuits and vegetables.

The move has reportedly received the implicit support of First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made anti-obesity a signature theme of her time in the White House.

Wal-Mart has become legendary for the firm’s nimble ability to influence its suppliers to fall in line. Kraft, which relies on Wal-Mart for 16% of its global sales, will be one of the many suppliers that will have no choice but to reduce trans-fats and added sugars in common culprits like potato chips and salad dressing.

Another key pillar of Wal-Mart’s plan is to help eliminate the preponderance of “food deserts” that have propagated in poor, urban neighorhoods across the country.

Wal-Mart is no stranger to big announcements that portend social progress. And to be fair, the firm has achieved many sustainability wins, such as signifcant returns in carbon intensity reduction and expanded fresh, organic and local food offerings.

But what is perhaps most interesting about today’s announcement is how the firm has reached a point where it is considered to be more of a market mover than one of its largest regulators, the FDA.

Highlights from the NYT report:

“Some say the company has almost as much power as federal regulators to shape the marketplace.

“A number of companies have said they are going to make voluntary reductions in sodium over the next several years, and numerous companies have said they are going to try to get trans fat out of their food,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest. “But Wal-Mart is in a position almost like the Food and Drug Administration. I think it really pushes the food industry in the right direction.”

Not all stakeholders are as impressed with Wal-Mart’s plan, but what is the public sector doing better to improve the health of an obese nation?

Image credit by robertstinnett via Flickr under a CC license

Written by Lane Jost

A lifelong conservationist, angler, gardener and writer, Lane is a Corporate Responsibility strategy consultant based in Chicago, where he currently works a CR consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Prior to joining PwC, Lane was a global sustainability performance and stakeholder engagement specialist for Sodexo North America. He has experience in microfinance program evaluation at Grameen Foundation. A former President of the Net Impact Chapter at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Lane has a master's in International Development Economics from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UCSD (IR/PS) and a bachelor's in history and international studies from Kenyon College. Prior to working in the sustainable business sphere, Lane spent six years as a communications and marketing professional focusing on arts and culture in New York City, where his work included the creation of the jazz website gothamjazz.com and serving as the publicist for the New York Philharmonic.

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