Wal-Mart caves to government bullies

Orit Sklar Political Commentator
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Michelle Obama and nutrition czar Sam Kass have taken the Food Police nationwide. Last week Wal-Mart announced that it is joining the first lady’s anti-obesity campaign by reducing the salt and sugar content of the food it sells.

As perfectly staged as Thursday’s White House-Wal-Mart press conference was, it is clear that this is not Wal-Mart’s doing. Wal-Mart has been coerced into complying. I kept looking for the Wal-Mart spokesman to flash a silent “distress” signal during the press conference.

Now, one of the largest companies in the world is the vehicle through which all American food and health policy will flow. As Wal-Mart begins to institute the five-year plan, aimed at reducing products that do not meet the first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign’s “healthy” standards, the rest of the food industry will be forced to follow. Wal-Mart’s standards — read: the first lady’s standards — will now be the law of the land. Skip over that pesky Congress and the FDA and go for a new model: coerced corporate control.

Even if you choose not to shop at Wal-Mart, this will affect you. Other companies will be forced to conform to Wal-Mart’s new standards, since companies can’t afford not to sell to Wal-Mart. It will be a nationwide shift.

This new take on public-private partnerships may not be what the public expected, though it’s a clever strategy. The question is: Where will it stop?

Dozens of companies continue to voluntarily march into this trap instead of going to battle against an increasingly intrusive state. They should know that they are not acting in the interest of their employees, their customers, or their stockholders when they jeopardize bottom lines and good taste to comply with the Food Police. And they are not acting in the interest of the American people when they join forces with pseudo government officials to push a one-size-fits-all diet on 300 million Americans who want choice.

The only explanation is that Wal-Mart has even more power than Congress and the FDA to regulate the food supply. The company seized on an opportunity to use the power of the state to seize greater market share and establish cozy barriers to entry for smaller competitors with better products who simply can’t afford to comply with looming mandates. How far are we from seeing black markets for tomato bisque and fettuccini alfredo?

Despite the public’s overwhelming opposition to being experimented on, Wal-Mart and the White House are basking in the positive PR that followed the announcement. By complying, the company may have felt that it dodged a public relations bullet.

The bigger picture here is that a corporation is being used by the government to control consumer consumption. Normally, companies in a free economy make decisions to change product lines when consumer-driven demand dictates change. But that’s in a free economy. Now, with the guidance of the Obama administration, corporations change product lines and force the public to fall in line.

Companies should look at Campbell’s as a case study. Campbell’s bowed to government pressure to offer lower sodium soup, despite the fact that consumers weren’t clamoring for it and there was no scientific research to support the change. Had the push for lower sodium been consumer driven, Campbell’s new offerings would have been flying off the shelves, but sales are stale and Campbell’s appears to be reversing course to prevent the downward slide.

This is not about food, or any one ingredient, but rather the more important question of how much food freedom consumers are willing to surrender to Wal-Mart and the government.

Notice to business owners: Americans want choice and will stand behind you in your principled resistance to the nanny-staters who’ve become arrogant and emboldened enough that they’re now invading our kitchens. Don’t be complicit in the theft of our liberty by removing the variety that Americans love from your shelves. Instead, next time the Food Police come pounding on your door, point to the “No Bullying Zone” sign and kindly close the door.

Orit Sklar is the national spokeswoman for the consumer coalition My Food. My Choice! and can be reached at orit@myfoodmychoice.org.