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    Walmart’s Leap Into the Great Labeling Fray

    Long one of the industry’s most controversial food retailers, Walmart continues its forceful charge to become a more responsible food merchant with the launch of its own front-of-pack “Great For You” food labels that are being rolled out for qualifying house-brand Great Value and Marketside products, as well as fresh and packaged produce.

    Long one of the industry’s most controversial food retailers, Walmart continues its forceful charge to become a more responsible food merchant with the launch of its own front-of-pack “Great For You” food labels that are being rolled out for qualifying house-brand Great Value and Marketside products, as well as fresh and packaged produce.

    Citing feedback from Walmart moms (the retailer’s panel of 20 independent bloggers from around the country), who say they're not only searching for help to make good food choices for their families when food shopping -- but more importantly, also need a hand deciphering the various claims and information already displayed on products -- Andrea Thomas, Walmart’s SVP of sustainability, said the new Great For You icon does just that, via a simple tool that encourages shoppers to make incremental dietary changes with more nutritious food choices.

    Thomas said the new system's science-based criteria is predicated on a two-step process, the first of which is to encourage people to eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds and lean meats; step two seeks to limit the amount of total trans and saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars that are in items such as sweetened oatmeal, granola bars, flavored yogurt and frozen meals.

    Launched earlier this week in Washington, the new program has generated ample headlines and overwhelming support from a variety of political and industry leaders, including First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as from the likes of Bill Shore, founder/CEO, Share Our Strength; Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, founder, Hispanic Food Communications; and Larry Soler, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Healthier America, all of whom agree that healthy food choices are essential to tackling the U.S. childhood obesity crisis. As Soler put it, “Any visual cue that allows consumers to quickly differentiate healthier food options” is to be applauded, and when it’s done by an “a critical leader” such as Walmart, all the better.

    The move is a part of a larger effort on the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer's part to make healthier food readily available and identifiable, which also includes the recent launch of The Green Room blog to track and promote global sustainability efforts.

    It’s interesting to note that Walmart’s new icon will also be made available to qualifying national brands and can also be used in tandem with other food industry nutrition labeling systems. What’s more, the mega-retailer is also making its labeling system available to other grocers interested in using it. (Word to Walmart Great for You brand leaders: Good luck with the last one, but an equitable gesture just the same.)

    As the latest entrant in the on-pack nutrition labeling fray, Walmart’s on-pack icon finds many observers wondering if it will further disrupt the aisles by adding another layer of confusion to the disparate labeling game now underway for consumers, and in turn accelerate demands for a single system with on-pack standards set by the FDA. Meanwhile, other observers also question whether identifying healthful food can easily be reduced to a simple yes/no decision, particularly when considering that much of the larger discussion revolves around how much and what else is being consumed.

    But as retail proponents of the existing front-of-package nutrition rating/scoring systems currently in place at a variety of supermarkets around the country have publicly declared, the programs are reportedly having a decidedly positive effect in helping shoppers meet a common goal of deciphering nutrition information easily and quickly.

    Still, many other food retailers have been reluctant to add on-pack nutrition labels to their own stores’ shelves. But as the supermarket industry has had ample reasons to learn through the years, when Walmart throws its weight behind major industry initiatives, others often have little choice but to adopt and champion a similar program of their own, or risk being beaten at their own game by their least welcome contender.

    -- Meg Major
    [email protected]

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