Walmart will make foods healthier and less costly at first lady's urging

NEW YORK — Retail giant Walmart Stores Inc., urged by first lady Michelle Obama, said it plans to reformulate thousands of food products to make them healthier and more affordable in a bid to boost its largest business by revenue.

At an event in Washington featuring a speech by Obama, Walmart said it plans to reduce sodium by 25 percent and added sugar by 10 percent by 2015 in both its Great Value private label and national branded products. It also plans to remove industry produced trans fat and partially hydrogenated oil, lower prices on healthier food items and build stores in what it described as "food deserts."

The initiative will hopefully "add to" but won't dent the company's profit projection, said Bill Simon, president and chief executive of Walmart U.S.

Obama's fight against childhood obesity served as a catalyst that led to the "collaborative" effort with the first lady's office, said Leslie Dach, the company's executive vice president of corporate affairs, adding that Walmart had several meetings with Obama's office in the past year.

"It affects products suppliers sell in stores all over the country," Obama said. "They are changing how the entire food industry does business."

In 2006, Walmart introduced a $4 generic prescription drug program, leading other rival retailers to follow suit.

The initiative came at a time as Walmart's sales and traffic have slowed with its customers hurt by a still high unemployment rate and rising gasoline prices.

The industry is also battling rising food inflation cost.

The company's earlier initiative to narrow its product assortment has also alienated some of its shoppers. Meanwhile, its discount rival Target Corp. has increased its fresh food and grocery offerings. The initiative also may help Walmart in its push to build stores in urban markets.

"We hope this will provide greater reason and opportunity for customers to come to our stores," Dach said.

Some of the food items being targeted include those that consumers don't expect to come with a lot of sodium or sugar such as salad dressing, lunch meat or box dinners, said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at the Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart. The company also plans to highlight healthier foods with a seal.

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