Political scientists generally agree that there has been a change in the political arena of modern societies: a shift from government towards governance, a process often referred to as political modernization. Some evaluate this development as positive, allowing for more direct democracy and more effective policymaking, whereas others are concerned about democratic legitimacy and accountability. This article examines whether the rise of private standards in animal welfare politics does provide a good example of political modernization, and whether it indeed creates a more democratic and more effective mode of policymaking. Using the framework of political modernization, we examine whether the collaboration of retailers and non-government organizations (NGOs) in developing private standards in Europe, and especially in the Netherlands, can be interpreted as a new political arrangement involving a new coalition of actors, a new discourse about animal welfare, and new rules of the game. Our analysis of these private animal welfare standards confirms, and challenges, the assumptions often made about the modernization of politics. Our analysis shows that private standards have indeed replaced the implementation of stricter animal welfare legislation. The collaboration of retailers with NGOs and farmers’ unions may be interpreted, to some extent, in terms of more direct political participation by citizens and stakeholders. However, given the powerful position of retailers in the European food market (a power that transcends massively that of farmers, consumers and citizens), there is also a clear need to analyse carefully the social, economic and legal consequences of this governance shift, which gives private actors regulative authority without them being bound by the democratic rules that serve as a check on whether state regulation serves the common good.