Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer and grocer, said Thursday that it would launch an aggressive initiative to make its food products more healthful and affordable and would build new stores in underserved areas.
Appearing with First Lady Michelle Obama at a news conference in Washington, Wal-Mart executives outlined the ambitious plan, which includes reformulating thousands of packaged food items by 2015 to reduce sodium by 25%, lower added sugars by 10% and remove all industrially produced trans fats.
The discount giant said it would also work with its distributors and farmers to lower prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, estimating that the move would save customers $1 billion a year. Wal-Mart is also developing criteria for a front-of-package seal on some products that would help consumers identify more healthful food options such as whole-grain cereal, whole-wheat pasta and unsweetened canned fruit.
"We don't think any American should have to choose between what's affordable and what's healthy," said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Wal-Mart.
Obama, whose Let's Move campaign aims to combat childhood obesity and encourage kids to be more active, lauded Wal-Mart's plan, which could have a ripple-down effect on other mass-market retailers and grocery stores.
"Efforts like this show us that yes, we can improve how we make and sell food in this country. We can do that. And we can feed our kids better," Obama said. "They're actually changing how the entire food industry does business."
The ongoing process is not expected to negatively affect earnings, Wal-Mart said. The Bentonville, Ark., company said it would try to make sure the flavors of reformulated foods — which will include items such as salad dressings, lunch meats and frozen entrees — would not be altered.
Wal-Mart also said it would build new stores in so-called food deserts in urban and rural areas that lack healthful food choices.
Recently Wal-Mart has positioned itself as a leader on such issues as affordable prescriptions and eco-friendly retailing, showing that the company is taking an increasingly long-term view of its business, said David Schick, an analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.
"I think the Wal-Mart of the last three years shows they think about being ahead of trends," he said. "Wal-Mart is starting to feel more comfortable and has a more integrated playbook between the social message and the economic message."