Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Thursday that it plans to gradually reduce the prices of its fruits and vegetables and lower the amount of fats, sugars and salts in the food it sells in a campaign to improve public health.

Details were scant and promises were plentiful during a joint event Thursday featuring the First Lady Michelle Obama and Wal-Mart U.S. president Bill Simon in the nation’s capital. But the world’s largest retailer said its goals included reformulating thousands of its Great Value private-label foods over the next five years to cut sodium 25% and added sugars 10%, and prodding major makers of brand name products to do the same.

“At Wal-Mart, we support consumer choice. We aren’t telling people what they should eat,” said Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability during the announcement, adding, “Often it is sodium or sugar that people don’t even known they are ingesting, for instance, when they are putting dressing on a salad.”

Many large food makers such as Kraft Foods Inc. and ConAgra Foods Inc. are already reducing sodium and eliminating trans fats under pressure from public officials and nutrition advocates. Mrs. Obama has begun to loudly champion healthier foods and exercise as part of a public campaign to combat rising childhood obesity.

“Efforts like this show us that yes, we can improve how we make and sell food in this country,” Mrs. Obama said at the event. She added that Wal-Mart, which estimates 140 million Americans pass through its doors every week, had “the potential to transform the marketplace and let Americans put healthier foods on their table.”

The splashy announcement comes as Wal-Mart, fighting to reverse six consecutive quarters of negative sales at U.S. stores open at least a year, makes an aggressive push into big cities where it faces intense union opposition by arguing, among other things, that it can bring healthier foods to the urban masses.

One of the ways Wal-Mart pledged Thursday to improve the nutrition of Americans, in fact, was to build more stores in inner-city areas dubbed “food deserts” that are under-served by traditional grocery chains.

To be sure, Wal-Mart has often been a bellwether for broad industry-wide changes in recent years as the retailer has tried to improve its reputation by using its unparalleled purchasing power to benefit the public good. Some of Wal-Mart’s pledges to lessen the environmental impacts of the products it sells have rippled broadly through industry, most notably its campaigns to reduce wasteful consumer packaging by prodding suppliers to reformulate products such as liquid laundry detergent.

Yet not all of Wal-Mart’s lofty promises have come to pass. Four years ago, Wal-Mart caused a stir with a bold announcement about an aggressive foray into organic foods. The company’s chief marketing officer, John Fleming, said that Wal-Mart would use its buying clout to democratize organics and drive down prices to a premium of just 10% over conventional foods, down from up to 30%.

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