Wal-Mart Unveils Plan To Make, Sell Healthier Foods

The largest company in America wants to help you eat better. At an event in Washington, D.C., Wal-Mart announced Thursday that it's cutting the amount of sodium, sugar and trans-fats from thousands of its products. The company's executives were joined on stage by a special guest, first lady Michelle Obama.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The largest company in America wants to help you eat better. At an event here in Washington, D.C., Wal-Mart announced today that it's cutting the amount of sodium, sugar and trans fats from thousands of its products. Wal-Mart's executives were joined on stage by a special guest.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: I am thrilled about Wal-Mart's new nutrition charter.

BLOCK: That's first lady Michelle Obama.

NPR's Brett Neely was at that news conference. He has this report.

BRETT NEELY: It's unusual for a first lady to appear at a corporate event, but Michelle Obama has made reducing childhood obesity her mission. And today's announcement by Wal-Mart fits squarely with those goals. Before she moved into the White House, Mrs. Obama told the audience she was a working mother and knows what it's like to cook for kids.

Ms. OBAMA: But I clearly remember that one of the things that made my life just a little more difficult was trying to figure out which foods were healthy and which ones weren't.

NEELY: Wal-Mart says that within five years, it will be a lot easier to find healthy food on its shelves. It's going to cut the amount of sodium in packaged foods by 25 percent and added sugars by 10 percent. Packaged labels will be clearer so customers can easily spot the healthy option. What kind of foods will this affect? Here's Wal-Mart executive Andrea Thomas.

Ms. ANDREA THOMAS (Executive, Wal-Mart): Salad dressings and lunchmeat and yogurts and boxed dinners and frozen foods and fruit drinks.

NEELY: Wal-Mart also plans to sell more fresh fruits and vegetables and make them cheaper for consumers. Plus, it promises to do so without squeezing the local farmers it intends to buy from. The plan is to use Wal-Mart's massive scale to cut packaging and distribution costs. It's the same strategy that brought you the $50 microwave, and this time in the service of bringing shoppers cheaper broccoli. That's going to mean working closely with farmers, truckers, nutritionists and thousands of other parts of an extremely long supply chain.

Wal-Mart CEO Bill Simon says the company is up to the task.

Mr. BILL SIMON (CEO, Wal-Mart): Complex challenges are a place where we think we have a role to play.

NEELY: As the largest seller of food in the country, when Wal-Mart wants something done, entire industries listen closely.

Mr. CHARLES FISHMAN (Author, "The Wal-Mart Effect"): When Wal-Mart says we're going to take the sodium in our private-label products down 25 percent, then everybody else in that world - Campbell Soup and Kraft and General Mills - ultimately have to follow suit.

NEELY: Author Charles Fishman wrote the book "The Wal-Mart Effect" about how the company is run. When his book first came out in 2006, Fishman was banned from the company's headquarters because some of his reporting was unflattering. He says that since then, Wal-Mart has realized it has to listen to its critics.

Mr. FISHMAN: Today's announcement is not an isolated announcement. It's in the context of the last three years of trying to both change how they do business and change the perception of how they do business.

NEELY: For example, the company has stripped extra packaging from its products, both to cut waste and lower weight, which cuts down on shipping costs, and Wal-Mart is making all parts of its operations more energy efficient.

The other context for this announcement is that Wal-Mart's once unstoppable growth has stalled.

Now, to get its momentum back, the chain is trying to expand from its base in rural and suburban areas. It's moving into the nation's cities, including Washington, D.C. Wal-Mart wants to appeal to shoppers like Rhonda Young(ph), who lives in the poor Washington neighborhood where Wal-Mart held its event today.

Ms. RHONDA YOUNG: Broccoli, that's my favorite, you know, but - and that's basically it, but it's expensive to eat healthy. It really is.

NEELY: She says she and her neighbors would all eat healthier if there were a Wal-Mart around.

Brett Neely, NPR News, Washington.

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