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Retailers Respond to Obesity in America

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What is not news, is that America continues to bear a scarlet letter – O, for obesity.  What is news, is the way American food retailers are beginning to respond to the epidemic.

Last week, Reuters announced news of Wal-Mart partnering with health insurance company Humana to offer credits, as part of Humana’s Healthy Rewards Program, for future Wal-Mart purchases on fresh fruit, veggies, lean meats, skim milk, brown rice, and some packaged goods.  This is another step toward reducing obesity that the world’s largest retailer has unveiled.  In January 2011, they worked with Michelle Obama on her quest to reduce obesity by adding “Great For You” icons on some of their healthier items, to help inform their customers of smarter food choices.

Remember when Wal-Mart’s slogan was “Always Low Prices. Always.”?  After nearly 20 years with that slogan, Wal-Mart updated to “Save Money. Live Better” in 2007, and still uses it today.  And it is certainly showing to be fitting towards the company’s strategies.

McDonald’s isn’t ignoring the problem either.  Now the world’s biggest hamburger chain will begin listing calorie information on menus and on drive-throughs, as soon as the end of this year.  This will beat the national deadline by almost one year for restaurants to begin sharing calorie information on menus.  A move McDonald’s thinks will help prove their commitment to offering healthier alternatives.

The state of California has required calorie-confessions on menus for some time now.  And as we know, the city of New York requires this now as well.  And soon, nationally this will also be required. Certain chains already do expose their calorie counts on a national level, such as Panera, Starbucks, and Subway.  Some chains have had to seriously revise their strategies and recipes in order to provide some healthier menu options, a positive step towards accountability by these food providers. New York also has put into effect its ban on extra large sodas, the first of its kind in the nation.  While this is a more aggressive approach, things like this happening in our country show that maybe we just can’t all pull our own weight, so to speak.

Perhaps we really need some intervention.  With the national mandate to share calorie information, retailers aren’t being forced to remove items, limit quantities, or change their business plans entirely.  McDonald’s is still allowed to sell as many Big Mac’s and sodas as they want.  But the chance for consumers to realize the healthier options are available means that we can be informed consumers.  It places the accountability on the purchaser and consumer to take control and eat better.   The restaurants and grocers can only offer the option.  The government mandate has meant big changes for retailers.  And with Wal-Mart’s choice to partner with a healthcare provider like Humana to offer credits towards healthier foods, it can only be imagined that other chains will feel the pressure to put their best foot forward in providing healthy options to their customers too.

Will the calorie menus really make a difference for America’s scarlet letter?  That is yet to be seen.  But one thing is for certain, restaurant retailers are feeling the squeeze, and providing consumers with smart choices, alternatives, and in some cases, rewards.

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