Built on the back of its ubiquitous retail operation, Walmart has become the largest grocer in the U.S. That position carries with it a certain responsibility, and Walmart is rising to the occasion. The company, for example, has been publicly acknowledged by the first lady, Michelle Obama, for its work in helping to encourage healthy eating and fight childhood obesity.
As we noted here earlier, Walmart's latest entry into the nutritional battlefield is a product labeling strategy it calls "Great for You." As the company explains, this "nutrition icon" will begin appearing this spring on foods that "meet rigorous nutrition criteria informed by the latest nutrition science and authoritative guidance from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Institute of Medicine (IOM)."
At first, the green "Great for You" labels, depicting a non-descript person with arms raised, will appear only on products within Walmart's own brands, Great Value and Marketside. Walmart claims, however, that it will allow other brands to make use of the label on products adhering to the same criteria with no licensing fee. In theory, this would help level the playing field between Walmart branded products and other brands sitting on Walmart shelves. But does it?
What, exactly, does "Great for You" mean? That's a good question. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, tells the New York Times, "The criteria are pretty strict, I'l give them credit for that. The label will only go on to about one-fifth of their products." But Nestle does not favor labels such as "Great for You" because, she says, they can be nothing more than "green 'buy me' schemes."
On the other hand, Larry Soler, CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, an organization that helps companies fight childhood obesity, supports the idea. He tells the Times, "Any visual cue that allows consumers to quickly differentiate healthier food options helps busy families, and we are pleased that Walmart continues to be a critical leader among a growing number of private sector organizations looking to end this epidemic."
It wasn't easy to determine which foods should get the label, according to Leslie A. Dach, Walmart's EVP for corporate affairs. "Originally, eggs didn't make the cut [because of their high cholesterol content]," Dach tells the Times. "But eggs are important to people on a tight budget, and we went over it with consumer groups, medical groups, education groups and came to the consensus that eggs play an important role in family budgets and so they get the icon."
The subtle undertone is that Walmart primarily serves budget-conscious consumers, and it's those very consumers who tend to buy less healthy foods for a simple reason — the foods are less expensive. To combat this, Walmart has made efforts to lower its prices on fresh fruits and vegetables and, according to the New York Times, the company has been working with food suppliers "to reduce sodium, added sugar and trans fats in some 165 products it sells." It has also made an effort to locate stores with groceries in so-called "food deserts," depressed or rural areas where no full-service grocery stores are available.
Still, the cynic could easily see the "Great for You" label as just another way to distinguish Walmart from its competitors. The fact is other large supermarket chains had adopted this type of nutritional labeling long before Walmart. Hannaford, for example, introduced its "Guiding Stars" system in 2006. It uses labels with one, two, or three stars to provide a "good, better, best" ranking of nutrition. SUPERVALU announced its "nutrition iQ" program in 2009 and has implemented it in several chains the company operates, including ACME, Albertsons, and Jewel-Osco. "Nutrition iQ" uses color-coded shelf tags to identify healthier food choices.
The real problem, it seems, is with every retailer-specific system, consumers may become more confused or swayed because one uniform labeling criteria doesn't exist to identify supposedly healthy choices. Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University thinks companies might be labeling foods "in a way that benefits themselves and not the consumer." He tells the Times, "Now here comes Walmart, this massively powerful player, with yet another system. The question is, in the midst of all this clutter of competing systems, how helpful its approach is likely to be."
What do you think? Will "good for you" labels and signage spur healthier eating and shopping patterns?