The microbial spoilage of food
We have described the nutritional versatility of microorganisms and their role in the global recycling of carbon. Unfortunately for us, fresh foods such as meats, fruit and vegetables provide a rich source of nutrients, which a wide range of heterotrophic microorganisms find just as attractive as we do. Certain microbial types are associated with particular foodstuffs, depending on their chemical composition and physical factors such as pH and water content. Acidic foods such as fruits, for example, tend to favour the growth of fungi rather than bacteria.
Often, spoilage organisms come from the same source as the food, for example soil on vegetables, or meat exposed to intestinal contents following slaughter. Others are introduced as contaminants during transport, storage or preparation. Among the most commonly found spoilage organisms are a number of human pathogens, includ-ing Pseudomonas, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria. Thus, although microbial spoilage may merely lead to foodstuffs being rendered unpalatable, it can also result in serious and even fatal illness (‘food poisoning’). Whilst observable changes to food-stuffs are only likely after the microbial population has reached a considerable size, food poisoning can result from the presence of much smaller numbers of contaminants.
Some foodstuffs are more susceptible to spoilage than others: fresh items such as meat, fish, dairy produce and fruit and vegetables are all highly perishable. Foods such as rice and flour, on the other hand, are much more resistant, because having no water content they do not provide suitable conditions for microbial growth. Drying is one of a number of methods of food preservation, all designed to prevent growth of microorganisms by making conditions unfavourable. Other methods include heating/canning, drying, pickling, smoking and, in many countries, irradiation.