The former Senate majority leader says government, corporations, non-profits (and the First Lady) all have a role in making America healthier.
FORTUNE — Bill Frist, the heart surgeon turned Republican politician, had nothing but love for his former colleagues on the Hill, corporate America, First Lady Michelle Obama — and even regulators! — when Fortune caught up with him at the Building a Healthier Future Summit in Washington on Thursday.
Frist, an honorary vice chair (along with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey) of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the non-profit organization that puts on the summit, says public and private institutions all have a role to play in getting citizens to engage in healthier habits. His inclusive tone is in keeping with the nonpartisan, big-tent ethos of the PHA, which was founded in 2010 in conjunction with Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move initiative. (Full discloser: Time Inc., Fortune’s parent, is a media sponsor of the Building a Healthier Future Summit.)
The former Tennessee lawmaker, who now spends his time as a partner at private equity firm Cressey & Co. and is founder and chairman of Aspire Health, cites Wal-Mart Store’s WMT efforts to sell healthier food as an example of collaboration across private and public sectors. By passing laws such as the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, which created national standards around nutrition and health claims, Congress provided consumers with more information to make smarter eating choices. But, Frist notes, “it is up to the private sector to address what’s in the products themselves.”
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And so Wal-Mart’s announcement in 2011 that it would work with its food suppliers through 2015 to reduce sodium by 25% and reduce added sugars by 10% ultimately could help make “the healthy choice the easy choice,” Frist says. “It is a huge commitment that benefits individual consumers.” Non-profits and government can then play a role in ensuring that Wal-Mart is meeting its goal, and measuring the outcomes associated with the changes.
In fact, many corporations use the Building a Healthier Future Summit to unveil commitments to tweaking their products to make them healthier or to make the labels more transparent. On Friday Dannon Co. will pledge at the summit to reduce fats and sugars in its yogurt. Del Monte Foods says it will increase the “nutrient density” of some of its products. And on Thursday, food services giant Sodexo announced sweeping efforts to put healthy choices in the hospital, government, school, and corporate cafes it runs.
Frist, who credits the Partnership for a Healthier America for driving such results in a non-partisan way (“PHA is where the action is at”) also had kind words for its counterpart organization, Let’s Move. Says Frist: “The role of government is to protect the safety of the American people but also to inspire, and the First Lady has done a tremendous job, and politics have been kept out of it.”