Walmart doesn't exactly conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings among many of us who call ourselves progressives. Though the company's huge footprint in the marketplace means consumers can pay lower prices for clothing, electronics, and increasingly, food -- it has also resulted in the shuttering of many family businesses. Much of small-town America's commerce has shifted from its once thriving, quaint downtowns to hangar-like Super Centers, with their vast parking lots. And the company's labor record also leaves something to be desired.
But the same marketplace muscle that the chain uses to "rollback" prices can also be harnessed in other ways. For instance, Walmart helped spur dramatic changes in the market for laundry detergent, requiring that its suppliers switch to concentrated liquids, thereby conserving energy and reducing solid waste. Similarly, Walmart is working to make its stores more energy efficient, doubling the efficiency of its truck fleet, and requiring its suppliers to likewise reduce their environmental footprint.
This week, Walmart announced some commonsense changes that will improve the nutritional quality of the food supply. First, the company is phasing out the use of partially hydrogenated oils in its house-brand products, and is requiring its suppliers to do the same in their name-brand products. That means, by 2015, Walmarts will be free of artificial trans fat -- and there will be enormous pressure on the rest of the food industry to follow suit. Artificial trans fat is a powerful promoter of heart disease. Including a line for it on Nutrition Facts labels has helped get much of it out of processed food and litigation has had a salutary effect among chain restaurants; Walmart's total elimination of it should save thousands of lives.
Also, Walmart will be reducing sodium in its house-brand foods and insisting that its suppliers reduce their levels too. Health experts, including the former head of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, have said that gradually halving the amount of sodium in processed and restaurant foods would save upwards of 100,000 lives a year. Walmart is asking for average sodium reductions in most processed foods by roughly 25 percent, a move that is virtually guaranteed to reduce the number of fatal heart attacks and strokes.
Grocers have often played passive roles as middlemen between producers and shoppers. But these actions by Walmart show that supermarkets can actually use their clout to help consumers and promote health. (And, of course, it goes without saying that Walmart wouldn't be doing these things unless it was confident they would pay off in terms of profits and image.)
Frankly, I hope Walmart's announcement inspires other supermarkets to set some basic nutritional standards for the foods they sell. And I hope that Walmart's action emboldens the Food and Drug Administration, which my organization and many others have urged to reduce sodium and eliminate artificial trans fat in packaged foods, to take action. (If either Walmart or FDA wants a suggestion on what to do next, either could bar the use of Red 40, Yellow 5 and other synthetic food dyes, some of which are allergenic, may cause cancer and cause behavior problems in children.)
The liberal in me doesn't like the idea of a company as big and as powerful as Walmart. But the scientist in me requires that I put the laudatory things that Walmart is doing on the scales as well.
Follow Michael F. Jacobson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CSPI