TORONTO - The idea of mice, rats and various creepy-crawlies running amok in grocery stores is enough to make anyone squeamish. But it's not just the ick factor -- these vermin can pose serious health hazards to consumers.

So when a west-end Toronto Loblaws was recently found to be overrun with rodents following a customer complaint, the city's public health inspectors didn't hesitate to shutter the store and order a massive clean-up.

Such an infestation is critical enough to be deemed a health hazard, says Jim Chan, manager of the Food Safety Program for Toronto Public Health.

"The most common health hazard that comes to mind is cross-contamination, because when you have a heavy infestation in a food establishment, guess what? At nighttime, when the place is closed, they're pretty much running over the place."

Cross-contamination can occur after rodents have crawled around a food counter, defecating and urinating, he says. "The next day when the worker comes in without cleaning and sanitizing the surface, they start preparing food, like making bread, making sandwiches, cutting meat."

"And now the contamination on the counter can actually transfer to the food items."

Where the beasties have been before they scurried across those grocery store counters and shelves doesn't bear thinking about.

In their hunt for food and shelter, rodents and cockroaches are creatures that revel in the muck, whether that be sewage systems or garbage bins. If they get into a grocery store or other premises, they carry the detritus of their wanderings with them.

"So their bodies -- the hair, the tail and the feet -- quite often they're all quite contaminated with pathogens," Chan says. "Pathogens means harmful bacteria like salmonella, campylobacter or even E. coli."

"So quite a risk can be posed to the public if they consume the food."

Under provincial laws, in Ontario and elsewhere in the country, food establishments of all types are required to have an effective pest-control program.

But keeping vermin out is an ongoing challenge for retailers, no matter how vigilant they may be.

Public health inspectors and pest-control companies look not just for droppings and other evidence of infestation within a grocery store, but also how these unwanted residents may have gained access in the first place.

Damage to exterior walls that opens up cracks and holes, as well as loading docks and even doors that repeatedly open to admit customers can act as portals for rodents. Cardboard boxes from suppliers can allow cockroaches and other bugs to hitchhike into a store -- and multiply.

"A rat can get in through a hole the size of a quarter; a mouse can squeeze through a hole the size of a dime," says Chan. "We actually have evidence that rats can get into walk-in coolers."

Greg Baumann, a senior scientist for the National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va., which represents pest-control companies worldwide, says grocery stores provide the three essentials that encroaching vermin require: food, water and shelter.

Licensed pest-control companies typically have a contract to inspect and treat a grocery store once a month, or even once a week, depending on the retailer's size and location, Baumann says.

That doesn't mean wholesale chemical spraying around food: control measures are tailored to the premises and the types of pests present.

And because the people-shy or light-eschewing critters aren't always easy for technicians to locate, "you have to play a bit of CSI," he says, noting that cockroaches, for instance, hide out in cracks and crevices until the coast is clear.

"Let's say there's a crack in the floor and (the technicians) shine the light down and they see a bunch of antennae waving at them," Baumann says. "What they might do is put something in that crack and seal it up."

Other techniques include spreading a gel along baseboards and other crack-like openings that attracts and kills roaches or even using a vacuum to suck the nasties into oblivion.

Sticky boards of varying sizes can be used to immobilize roaches, other crawling bugs, mice and rats; traps are also used to capture rodents for removal.

Of course, needing that kind of heavy-handed intervention because of a serious infestation is what grocery store owners want to avoid at all costs, says John Scott, president and CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

"They all have food safety programs and one of the key components of food safety is cleanliness and the attention to deal with this kind of thing," says Scott, whose federation represents more than 4,300 independent grocers across the country.

Independents and corporate chain grocery stores in Canada have all signed on to a food-safety protocol, he says, which includes dealing with incursions of rodents and other pests.

"If you're seen by the consumer not to be food safe in any way as a retailer, you're finished. You have to be food safe. The consumer is counting on you to be food safe."

While it's critical that grocery stores are diligent with pest control, Chan says consumers can also play an important role by keeping their eyes open for red flags of infestation.

And that doesn't mean just seeing a live mouse, as the whistle-blower at the Toronto Loblaws store witnessed, but also looking for general cleanliness of the premises, rodent droppings or damage to packaging and food items.

"Recently one of the inspectors received a complaint about (a consumer) buying a loaf of bread," recalls Chan. "A mouse had actually tunnelled through the loaf of bread."

"Any time that a shopper observes something that they're not comfortable with, that may be a health hazard ... we just want (them) to notify the local health department."