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Microbial flora of food

Section 4: Microbial flora of food


It is important to be able to distinguish food poisoning from food spoilage. The former is when food is eaten which looks normal, smells normal and tastes normal. Hence you eat enough to make you ill from the ingested pathogens or toxins. Spoiled food does not normally cause food poisoning because it is rejected by the consumer before ingestion. In order to help determine if food is spoiled please note the list below ;-

Food Spoilage Test (sense of humour required...)

  • Eggs: When something starts pecking its way out of the shell, the egg is probably past its prime.
  • Mayonnaise: If it makes you violently ill after you eat it, the mayonnaise is spoiled.
  • Frozen foods: Frozen foods that have become an integral part of the defrosting problem in your freezer compartment will probably be spoiled -- (or wrecked anyway) by the time you pry them out with a kitchen knife.
  • Expiration dates: This is NOT a marketing ploy to encourage you to throw away perfectly good food so that you'll spend more on groceries. Perhaps you'd benefit by having a calendar in your kitchen.
  • Meat: If opening the refrigerator door causes stray animals from a three-block radius to congregate outside your house, the meat is spoiled.
  • Bread: Sesame seeds and Poppy seeds are the only officially acceptable "spots" that should be seen on the surface of any loaf of bread. Fuzzy and hairy looking white or green growth areas are a good indication your bread has turned into a pharmaceutical laboratory experiment.
  • Flour: Flour is spoiled when it wiggles.
  • Salt: It never spoils.
  • Lettuce: Iceberg lettuce is spoiled when you can't get it off the bottom of the vegetable crisper without Comet. Romaine lettuce is spoiled when it turns liquid.
  • Canned goods: Any canned goods that have become the size or shape of a softball should be disposed of. Carefully. Very, very carefully!
  • Raisins: Raisins should not be harder than your teeth.
  • Potatoes: Fresh potatoes do not have roots, branches, or dense, leafy undergrowth.
  • Chip dip: If you can take it out of its container and bounce it on the floor, it has gone bad.
  • Empty containers: Putting empty containers back into the refrigerator is an old trick, but it only works if you live with someone or have a maid.
  • Unmarked items: You know it's well beyond prime when you're tempted to discard the Tupperware along with the food. Generally speaking, Tupperware containers should not burp when you open them.
  • General rule of thumb: Most food cannot be kept longer than the average life span of a goldfish. Keep a goldfish nearby your refrigerator to gauge this.
  • But more seriously....

    Ready-to-eat food guidelines and surveillance studies

    The HPA (UK) guidelines for ready-to-eat foods (Section 6.11, p288) were updated at the end of 2009. You can down load a .pdf file version by going to the HPA (UK) web site. These were released just at the final stages of the book being complied and so are only briefly referred to, but the main detail is on the previous similar 2000 version.

    The USA are collecting baseline data of microorganisms in food (FSIS). Meanwhile there are a number of microbiological surveillance studies that have been published on various ready-to-eat foods, assessed according to criteria such as the HPA(UK) RTE guidelines. These include:

      RTE surveillance studies
    1. Ice cream
    2. Stuffing (Richardson & Stevens 2003 J Appl Microbiol 94, 733-737)
    3. Salads
    4. Organic vegetables (Sagoo et al. 2001 Lett Appl Microbiol 33, 434-439)
    5. Meat and meat products (Joint Food Safety and Standards Group, UK, Number 9)
    6. Burgers (Little et al. 2001 Commun Dis Public Health 4, 293-9)
    7. Cooked rice (Nichols et al. 1999 J Food Protect 62, 877-882)
    8. Chicken sandwiches (Little et al. 2002 Commun Dis Public Health 5, 289-98)
    9. Foods from sandwich bars and take-aways
    10. Quiche (Gillespie et al. 2001 Commun Dis Public Health 4, 53-9)
    11. Salmonella and Campylobacter contamination of fresh & frozen chicken
    12. Aflatoxins

    These studies help to shows the proportion of foods containing pathogenic bacteria (not viruses or toxins), and contribute towards the microbiological risk assessment of such foods.


    Dairy products, lactic acid bacteria and probiotics

    Lactic acid bacteria have been used for centuries to preserve various food products (Overview).

    More recently there has been considerable interest in the use of lactic acid bacteria and related organisms in the production of probiotics (p134). Below is a list of web sites some of which are commercial which sell probiotic cultures for a range of purposes. Look trough the sites and decide which tests you would carry out to determine the efficacy of these products. Firstly consider the number of organisms that would survive the stomach (lactic acid bacteria will be acid resistant) and the number of bacteria already colonising the intestinal tract.


    In the first edition (2000) I introduced the potential applications of DNA arrays, etc as I believed modern food microbiologists should be aware of these developments, even if they do not have access/direct use of them. Since then the complete genomes of many important foodborne pathogens have been released and a number are listed in Table 2.15, (p89). Of particular relevance here is the sequence analysis of Bifidobacterium longum (PNAS article) as well as Lactococcus lactis has been published (Genome Research). There is a Lactic Acid Bacterium Genome Consortium (see NEWS) who worked on the genomes of nine organisms. Their work was published in PNAS and this may assist in our understanding of probiotics.

      Probiotics
    1. WHO draft guidelines on the evaluation of probiotics (May 2002)
    2. Lactic acid bacteria description
    3. Lactobacillus description
    4. Yakult
    5. Actimel
    6. Wakunaga products
    7. Probiata
    8. Natren
    9. Yogurt-probiotics
    10. Candida and probiotics
    11. Living Well with Probiotics
    12. Custom probiotics
    13. Metagenetics-probiotics
    14. Dr Ohhira's original probiotic culture !

    Food additives are used for a variety of purposes, including preservation. A useful site which can be used to search for data on food additives has been compiled by the Nordic Working Group on Food Toxicology (Nordic Food Additive database).

    If you are looking for useful pictures of food matrix and micro-organisms a useful site is Foods under the microscope

    A couple of web sites I have just picked up on eggs are good at explaining the egg structure and associated microbial hazards:

    Section 7.5 has simple diagrams on microbial biofilms. There is also a very descriptive article on biofilms in an issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases (Sept, 2002)

    Please visit the ''Poetic Justice' site for a break!



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