The antimicrobial properties of 21 plant essential oils and two essences were investigated against five important food-borne pathogens, Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella enteritidis, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Listeria monocytogenes. The oils of bay, cinnamon, clove and thyme were the most inhibitory, each having a bacteriostatic concentration of 0·075% or less against all five pathogens. In general, Gram-positive bacteria were more sensitive to inhibition by plant essential oils than the Gram-negative bacteria. Campylobacter jejuni was the most resistant of the bacteria investigated to plant essential oils, with only the oils of bay and thyme having a bacteriocidal concentration of less than 1%. At 35 °C, L. monocytogenes was extremely sensitive to the oil of nutmeg. A concentration of less than 0·01% was bacteriostatic and 0·05% was bacteriocidal, but when the temperature was reduced to 4 °C, the bacteriostatic concentration was increased to 0·5% and the bacteriocidal concentration to greater than 1%.