A new roster of food cops is quietly taking over the global food-safety beat: your grocers.
While regulators waffle over how to improve food safety, some of the world's largest grocery sellers have been using their market muscle to force suppliers to clean up or risk being punted from retail's most sought-after shelves.
Leading the run are the same corporate giants critics blame for jeopardizing food safety amidst their globe-spanning pursuit of abundant cheap food. But no one is arguing about the impact grocery heavyweights are having on safety in the global supply chain, where their border-transcending clout eclipses the reach of public regulators.
"Governments have to take great care before they enact a policy ... they won't want to lose jobs, they won't want to lose small businesses," said James Marsden, a food safety expert at Kansas State University. "Retailers, in the cold reality of business, they don't have to consider things like that. A company like Wal-Mart has more reach in terms of global food production than any regulatory agency could dream of."
Case in point: Wal-Mart, the world's largest grocer, cut through a highly political debate over tainted hamburger meat in the U.S. this year by forcing suppliers to conduct specialized tests for E. coli and salmonella.
In Canada, Loblaws became the first national retailer to insist private-label suppliers comply with safety standards under the Global Food Safety Initiative, an alliance started by eight of the world's largest food retailers.
"We're not just the retailer. In our minds, we're the manufacturer as well, because they're our brands we're absolutely accountable for everything to do with them," said Andrew Clappen, Loblaws' vice president of Food Safety and Quality Control. "Consumers absolutely have to have confidence that all the products that are sold are safe," he said.
After half a billion eggs were recalled due to a salmonella outbreak in the U.S. earlier this year, Costco, the international wholesale chain, insisted farmers would have to vaccinate their hens against salmonella to sell eggs in company stores (a precaution only U.K. law demands).
Globally, the retailers' movement has won early praise. But it has also fuelled worries about the industry's long-term ability to self-police.
"The idea that companies might help us all by imposing some standards is not a bad one," said Charles Fishman, an investigative journalist and author of 'The Wal-Mart Effect.'
"A corporation is not accountable, except in the marketplace," he said, adding: "If we depend on corporations to figure out what the standards should be and impose them ... we may like it in the first year, stop noticing it in the middle eight years, and in the 10th year, the corporation may decide 'This is just killing us in terms of money. We're not going to do it any more'," he said. "There's no recourse [for consumers] That's not the way a food safety organization should work."
Jorgen Schlundt, the recently departed director of food safety at the World Health Organization, worries big retailers view food safety as a marketing tool.
"There is a huge difference between what consumers ... think is important and what is really important," Dr. Schlundt said. "It is extremely important that the science that standards are built upon and the standards themselves are not made by industry - not made by the people who are supposed to be monitored by government," he said.
With private-label products projected to eat up one-third of shelf space in the coming years, retailers will be more invested than ever in managing risk.
"If there's a recall or somebody gets sick … all you have to do is look at the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak to know how it can affect the brand," said Paul Medeiros, a food-safety consultant with the Guelph Food Technology Centre.
"The further abroad you go, the more difficult it is to ensure ... control over your suppliers. You just don't know what they're doing or what they're not doing," he said. "Clearly we cannot rely on the federal government to ensure all the ingredients coming in are safe."
But some argue that the problems with the public system, however endemic, do not justify allowing a corporate model to supersede it.
"If the food safety system isn't up to the task of a complicated global food supply, it may be that … we'll be sorry if we don't fix the normal system rather than simply relying on corporate food cops, so to speak," Mr. Fishman said.