updated 2/4/2008 3:09:49 PM ET 2008-02-04T20:09:49

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest U.S. grocery chain, is adopting new global safety standards for its private label and other foods at a time when analysts say consumers are more concerned than ever about food safety.

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Wal-Mart said Monday it will require audits using global safety standards at thousands of factories worldwide that produce its house brands, including Sam's Choice, and other items that don't carry major brand names.

Wal-Mart said in a statement that it is the first national grocery chain in the United States to adopt the Global Food Safety Initiative standards for its private-label products.

Analysts said the move could give Wal-Mart a pro-safety image boost that would help its grocery business, already one of its strongest sales areas along with home electronics, pharmacy and the health and beauty aisles.

E. coli outbreaks traced to bagged baby spinach and beef have heightened consumers' concerns about the food they put on their tables.

"Food safety is at the top of consumers' minds like never before," said Ted Taft, managing director of Meridian Consulting in Westport, Connecticut. "There is an opportunity to stake out a position as a leader."

Wal-Mart said it will require suppliers to be certified by safety programs under the umbrella of the Global Food Safety Initiative, a group created in 2000 to set common benchmarks for different national and industry food safety programs.

The retailer said GFSI standards are now widely used around the world including in Britain and Japan, two countries where Wal-Mart does business.

Wal-Mart spokesman Nick Agarwal said the standards will require factories be audited for safety in making foods including produce, meat, fish, poultry and ready-to-eat products like frozen pizza and microwave meals.

"We have always felt strongly about food safety, but nothing ever stands still," Agarwal said about why Wal-Mart is adopting the new standard.

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 who are experts in their industry.

Wal-Mart has published a schedule to suppliers requiring completion of initial certification between July and December of 2008, with full certification required by July 2009.

Wal-Mart private label food brands in the U.S. are Great Value and Sam's Choice. Sam's Club private label food brands in the U.S. include Member's Mark and Bakers & Chefs.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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