business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

When a news story combines Walmart, the White House and the nation’s obesity epidemic, it’s certain to spark spirited debate on the internet.

And so a search of Walmart’s new health initiative revealed bloggers lobbing bouquets and brickbats at the nation’s largest retailer for the ambitious plan announced last week in Washington.

With First Lady Michelle Obama on hand, Walmart unveiled a five-year effort to reformulate thousands of its store brands to make them healthier - and to push its suppliers to follow suit. It also pledged to lower prices on produce, build stores in economically-depressed “food deserts” and develop a logo for healthier items. (As reported by MNB, The Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association on Monday revealed details of their voluntary front-of-packaging labeling initiative, called “Nutrition Keys.” At least one report, in the New York Times suggested that it fell short of Mrs. Obama’s vision for labeling.)

While the FMI/GMA announcement prompted chatter online, it was a blip compared to the commentary on Walmart, as is always the case with the marketplace monolith.

Experts, including Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, supported the move. “Food companies have systematically trained Americans to eat in perverse ways. We now expect extreme levels of sweetness, fattiness and saltiness in our foods,” Brownell wrote. “It’s time to turn this ship around.”

Bur Brownell warned “if the change stops with Walmart, a major opportunity will be lost.”

In a competing column on, “Diet for a Hot Planet” author Anna Lappé criticized the mainstream media for falling for an effective publicity ploy by Walmart: “Making a big PR splash about improving the health qualities of its food is a smart tactic to deflect attention from the real impact of Wal-Mart on the quality of life for Americans.”

And over at the site, the headline read “Walmart caves to government bullies.” On the group’s Facebook page, the posts ripped the First Lady for her acting as the “Food Police” and Walmart for acquiescing to government pressure.

Elsewhere, the dialogue included the typical criticism of Walmart for “slave wages” and being a “job killer” and the more subject specific comment that “reducing added sugars and transfats on the surface sounds like a good move, but it is still ‘putting lipstick on a pig.’”

Others sounded what I consider a more reasonable response, such as “I'm not pro-Walmart as a company but people need to take responsibility for what they eat no matter where they shop.”

And this: “Looking down your noses at the masses who can't afford to shop at Whole Foods or go to 5 different stores to buy organic everything is not helpful or realistic. I don't personally ever shop at Walmart either, but in the wake of our current obesity epidemic, we have to take whatever action we can.”

As might be expected when the world’s biggest retailer takes a strong position on an important issue, the voices are loud. It will be interesting to see if people continue to be as vocal as Walmart’s implementation takes place.

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