The news that Wal-Mart Stores is to reformulate thousands of its packaged food products through the lowering of sodium and sugars has garnered a mix of reactions from industry watchers, many of whom believe the initiative may now cause a ripple effect throughout the sector.

The world’s largest retailer unveiled the plans at an event in Washington yesterday (20 January), attended by First Lady Michelle Obama, and it includes Wal-Mart slashing sodium in certain private-label lines by 25% and cutting sugars by 10% by 2015.

Wal-Mart said the major health initiative aims to build on the success of the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign launched last year, which called on food manufacturers to curb the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.

Food manufacturers and retailers embarking on such moves often face cynicism but, while some commentators may see Wal-Mart’s plan as a mere PR stunt, others have suggested that, given the sheer size of the retailer, the plan could have a real impact.

James Gavin, chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America, praised Wal-Mart’s commitment to increasing “healthy, affordable food options” in the US.

“The Partnership for a Healthier America commends Wal-Mart for taking an important step forward in addressing the obesity epidemic that seriously affects our children,” Gavin said.

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“Today’s announcement is important because Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, will now be providing millions of American families with convenient access to a wide range of healthy, affordable food,” he added. “Limited access to healthy food plays a key role in the obesity crisis.”

Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, told just-food that the initiative could have a “significant” impact on the industry.

“Wal-Mart is a very big company and they have a lot of ability to make changes in the supply chain,” Waldrop said. “I think what they are announcing really can have a significant impact across the supply chain because they will be requiring this, not only of themselves and their private label brands, but also of their vendors. So I think they’re trying to work with their vendors and reduce the levels of sodium and that could have a pretty significantly impact.”

Elsewhere, Michael Jacobson, executive director for US consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest also applauded Wal-Mart for “using its marketplace muscle” to move the food industry in a healthier direction – although he reiterated once again that there is still room for government limits to be set on salt levels.

“I hope this move emboldens the Food and Drug Administration and US Department of Agriculture, which should immediately pull the plug on partially hydrogenated oil and set reasonable limits on sodium levels in different categories of packaged foods,” Jacobson said.

Such a prospect would concern many retailers and manufacturers that may feel they have already made significant contributions to tackling the issue of obesity with a range of measures in recent years.

Indeed, the food industry has been given every chance to contribute and the US government has allowed much leeway for firms to bring in their own initiatives to make foods healthier. However, there are signs that the onus on industry to make their proposals work and to contribute proactively to tackling the problem has increased markedly.

In November last year, The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute launched a new industry-led front-of-pack nutrition labelling system in the US, and at the start of the year, the introduction of the National Salt Initiative (NSI) signalled a major step in satisfying both the government and US consumer advocates that something was being done.

The aim was to cut the level of salt in packaged and restaurant foods by 25% over five years, and since its launch in January last year, a number of major manufacturers have signed up to the initiative, including Kraft Foods, Heinz, Unilever, Campbell Soup Co., Mars Inc, PepsiCo and General Mills.

The debate over obesity has rolled on for some time in the US, and Mrs Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign was a firm reminder to retailers and manufacturers that something serious needed to be done to tackle the issue of rising obesity in the US.

The First Lady’s involvement in tackling the issue of childhood obesity in the US has become extremely significant as a result of the enormous public attention she garners in the country and the commitment by the Obama administration to federal government intervention to tackle the problem.

Some analysts have suggested the presence of the First Lady at the launch Wal-Mart’s health initiative may have been a good PR move on the part of the US retailer.

“They’ll get some good press out of it,” Patrick McKeever, a retail analyst for MKM Partners told Fox Business yesterday. “The company is pushing more aggressively now into urban markets, they’ve got their sights on Chicago, and parts of Manhattan, so this paves the way a little for Wal-Mart as they move into these public relations issues, so it’s a good dose of PR.”

Waldrop however, believes Wal-Mart’s size will have an impact on the behaviour and strategies of other retailers.

“The fact that Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the US means this may lead to a larger impact across the retail chain,” he tells just-food. “I think we could potentially see this start to ripple out across other retailers as well.

“I think [the initiative] will continue to drive the change in terms of reducing sodium and reducing added sugars, it will further push that along the road,” he added.

This sentiment was echoed by Dr Rachel Johnson, spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

“For the most part, we are very excited about the initiative,” she told just-food. “We think it’s a really positive move, 140m customers per week go through Wal-Mart stores in the country, so they have a tremendous reach on the market place. This could be a very significant health initiative.”

Johnson also points out that, as well as the impact on retailer behaviour, Wal-Mart’s plans will also affect suppliers. She said manufacturers will now need to consider carefully what they produce.

“Wal-Mart has a tremendous influence in the marketplace so I think other retailers will be watching to see how successful this initiative is. My understanding is that they will say to the food manufacturers that if they want the products on Wal-Mart shelves, these are the criteria they will have to meet. And if suppliers are doing that for Wal-Mart, one would hope that they might do it for all of their markets.”

However, Johnson believes that while the initiative may have a major impact on the industry’s fight to tackle obesity, there is still more that can be done.

“[Wal-Mart] is committed to removing all of the trans fats from its products which will be a great move but I think that needs to go along with consumer education. Because certainly, foods that are labelled zero trans fat or trans fat free, they don’t contain a lot of saturated fats, which raises cholesterol levels. But trans fat free foods can also be unhealthy if they contain high added sugar. Products like cookies, cakes and doughnuts could be trans fat free, but you don’t want consumers to think that that means they are necessarily a healthy choice.”

No matter how this latest initiative pans out, one thing this is for sure, as Johnson points out, the industry will be watching.

“The consumer advocacy groups in the US are going to be watching Wal-Mart very closely and holding their feet to the fire to make good on this pledge that they made,” Johnson said. “I spoke with Wal-Mart executives yesterday and they promised that this is the real deal, but a lot of people are going to be watching.”