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Effect of pH and Water Activity on the Growth Limits of Listeria monocytogenes in a Cheese Matrix at Two Contamination Levels

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Listeria monocytogenes can proliferate at the beginning of cheesemaking as the conditions favor growth. The objective of this study was to establish the growth limits of L. monocytogenes in a cheese matrix, in case of potential contamination of the milk prior to cheese manufacture. A semisoft laboratory scale model cheese system was made at different initial pH and water activity (aw) levels with a mix of two strains of L. monocytogenes. A factorial design of five pH values (5.6 to 6.5), four aw values (0.938 to 0.96), and two L. monocytogenes inoculation levels (1 to 20 CFU/ml and 500 to 1,000 CFU/ml) was carried out. Each combination was evaluated in six independent replicates. In order to determine if there was a dominant strain, isolated colonies from the cheeses were analyzed by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis. The data relating to growth initiation were fitted to a logistic regression model. The aw of milk influenced the probability of growth initiation of L. monocytogenes at both low and high contamination levels. The pH, at the concentrations tested, had a lower effect on the probability of growth initiation. At pH 6.5 and aw of 0.99 for low contamination levels and pH 6.5 and aw of 0.97 for high contamination levels, increases in population of up to 4 and 2 log were observed at low and high contamination levels, respectively. This shows that if conditions are favorable for growth initiation at the early stages of the cheesemaking process, contamination of milk, even with low numbers, could lead to L. monocytogenes populations that exceed the European Union's microbiological limit of 100 CFU/g of cheese.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Teagasc Moorepark Food Research Centre, Fermoy, Co. Cork, Ireland; Biosystems Engineering, School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin, Ireland 2: Department of Food Science and Technology, Agricultural University of Athens, Greece 3: Biosystems Engineering, School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine, University College Dublin, Ireland 4: Teagasc Moorepark Food Research Centre, Fermoy, Co. Cork, Ireland.

Publication date: November 1, 2011

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