(Feb. 8) The biggest retailer in the U.S. says it will require suppliers of produce and other food to be certified against Global Food Safety Initiative standards.

Officials with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., said in a Feb. 4 news release that the company is the first U.S. grocery chain to require GFSI certification of suppliers.

The Global Food Safety Initiative was launched in May 2000 by seven major retailers and creates shared food safety standards. GFIS certification should help reduce costs in the supply chain by reducing redundant audits, the Wal-Mart news release said.

Wal-Mart said in the release that suppliers will be required to complete initial certification between July and December of 2008. Full certification — conducted by approved third-party auditing companies — must be done by 2009.

Wal-Mart’s announcement is significant because of the volume of product and the number of suppliers the chain uses, said Jill Hollingsworth, vice president for food safety programs at the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C.

“Wal-Mart has spread a very big net, asking literally all of their suppliers to (be certified),” she said.

A Wal-Mart spokesman could not be reached for comment on Feb. 6.

GFSI standards exceed U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, the news release said, and give real-time details on where suppliers fall short in food safety on a plant-by-plant basis.

Under the GFSI program, producers of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club private-label and other foods sold in the U.S. must be audited by independently trained, approved and licensed auditors.

“We expect to see more and more retailers and even food service companies ask their supplies to do the same thing,” Hollingsworth said.

She noted many retailers ask their suppliers for third-party audits, but far fewer have required suppliers to be certified to a food safety standard such as GFSI.

One benefit of the GFIS standard is that suppliers eventually may face fewer audits if more retailers embrace the standard.

She noted Wal-Mart’s action also may spur more third-party auditing companies to become accredited to perform certifications that are benchmarked to the GFIS standards.

The requirement of suppliers to complete the certifications demonstrates Wal-Mart’s leadership in food safety, J.P. Suarez, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president and chief compliance officer, said in a news release. Suarez is a board member of the Global Food Safety Initiative. “We encourage other U.S. retailers to follow our lead and to also endorse these standards.”

GFSI requires food suppliers to achieve certification against one of its recognized standards — which include the FMI’s Safe Quality Food program, the British Retail Consortium, the International Food Standard, or an equivalent such as Global-GAP — the release said.