Microbial inactivation by new technologies of food preservation


Pilar Mañas, Tecnología de los Alimentos, Facultad de Veterinaria, Universidad de Zaragoza, C/Miguel Servet, 177, 50013 Zaragoza, Spain (e-mail: manas@unizar.es).

1. Summary

The increasing consumer demand for ‘fresh-like’ foods has led to much research effort in the last 20 years to develop new mild methods for food preservation. Nonthermal methods allow micro-organisms to be inactivated at sublethal temperatures thus better preserving the sensory, nutritional and functional properties of foods. The aim of this review is to provide an overview of the microbiological aspects of the most relevant nonthermal technologies for microbial inactivation currently under study, including irradiation, high hydrostatic pressure, pulsed electric field and ultrasound under pressure. Topics covered are the mechanisms of inactivation, sensitivity of different microbial groups and factors affecting it and kinetics of inactivation.

2. Introduction

Micro-organisms are the main agents responsible for food spoilage and food poisoning and therefore food preservation procedures are targeted towards them. Food preservation methods currently used by the industry rely either on the inhibition of microbial growth or on microbial inactivation. Methods which prevent or slow down microbial growth cannot completely assure food safety, as their efficacy depends on the environmental conditions such as, for instance, the maintenance of the chill chain. Thermal treatment is the most widely used procedure for microbial inactivation in foods. However, heat causes unwanted side-effects in the sensory, nutritional and functional properties of food. This limitation together with increasing consumer demand for fresh-like foods has promoted the development of alternative methods for microbial inactivation, among which ionizing irradiation, ultrasound under pressure, high hydrostatic pressure (HHP) and pulsed electric field (PEF) are attracting much interest.

The irradiation process involves the application of electromagnetic waves or electrons to foods. Radiation sources are either gamma rays from cobalt-60, electron beams or X-rays, and the amount of irradiation absorbed by a food is measured in kGy (1 Gy = 1 J kg−1). Commercial application of ionizing radiation (IR) treatment on foods was started at the beginning of the 1980s, but its success has been prevented by consumer concerns. Nowadays, social perception of IR is changing and this technology is being re-examined.

Ultrasound is defined as sound waves with frequencies above the threshold for human hearing (>16 kHz). Although ultrasound was initially discarded for food preservation because of its weak lethal action, the application of an external hydrostatic pressure of up to 600 kPa [manosonication (MS)] increases substantially the lethality of the treatment. In addition, a combination of MS with temperature [manothermosonication (MTS)] has been proposed (Raso et al. 1998a).

The HHP involved the application of pressures from 100 to 1000 MPa. The first studies on the lethal effect of HHP were conducted at the end of the 19th century, but it has been in recent years when commercial applications of this procedure have started. Finally, PEF technology consists in the application of short duration (1–100 μs) high electric field pulses (10–50 kV cm−1) to a food placed between two electrodes. Like ultrasound under pressure, PEF technology is not yet being used to preserve food commercially.

This review discusses the state of the art of the research of the microbial aspects of the four technologies described above.

3. Mechanisms of Inactivation

The successful implementation of a novel technology for food preservation relies on the progress in the field of mechanisms of inactivation. An adequate knowledge of the physiological behaviour of micro-organisms towards inactivation agents is essential for the development of safe foods. It is necessary for understanding the effect of environmental factors on resistance and also for identifying critical factors. It would help to interpret kinetics of inactivation and to develop mathematical models based on parameters with a biological meaning and therefore more useful and able to predict microbial inactivation in a wider range of conditions. A better knowledge of the effect of the preservation agents on the micro-organisms would lead to a more rational design of processes.

3.1 Inactivation targets and mode of action

Cell death has been associated with either structural damage or physiological dysfunctions. Among structural damage, disruption of the envelopes, DNA conformational changes, ribosome alterations or protein aggregation are the most frequently described. Also physiological disorders, such as membrane selective permeability alterations or loss of function of key enzymes have been proposed as events leading to cell death (Gould 1989). Perhaps the most important difficulties that researchers encounter in this area is that several of these lesions may occur simultaneously when the cells are subjected to an agent and it is therefore difficult to attribute the loss of viability of the cell to a single event. Nevertheless, it must be kept in mind that also multitarget inactivation is feasible, this being the addition of several lesions that together cause death. It is also possible that the key target is only affected when a secondary structure is previously damaged.

For instance, heat causes membrane damage, loss of nutrients and ions, ribosome aggregation, DNA strand breaks, inactivation of essential enzymes, protein coagulation, etc. (Gould 1989). In other words, almost every cellular structure is somehow affected by elevated temperatures, and it is very difficult to discern which events are leading to cell death. In fact, this is only possible if a direct relationship between the degree of inactivation and the degree of modification of a given target under different environmental conditions is found.

Regarding novel inactivation technologies, progress on inactivation mechanisms research is heterogeneous. In this way, sound hypotheses have been put forward to describe the effect of IR and ultrasound on micro-organisms, but much research is still needed to completely explain the way PEF and HHP can inactivate bacterial cells. Table 1 summarizes the relevant events related to bacterial inactivation by the four technologies.

Table 1.  Events related to bacterial inactivation and resistance to irradiation (IR), manosonication (MS), high hydrostatic pressure (HHP) and pulsed electric field (PEF)
EventNovel method
  1. *Observations based on few data.

  2. †Depending on micro-organism and treatment conditions.

Occurrence of damage to
 DNA+++ + 
 Ribosomes  ++ 
 Other proteins  ++*
Occurrence of sublethal injury+*+++++†
Occurrence of stress adaptation+*++++*

It is well established that the critical target for irradiation is the chromosome (Moseley 1989). The effects of ionizing irradiation on bacterial cells are classified as direct and indirect. Direct actions comprise the events caused by the absorption of radiation energy by the target molecules, whereas indirect actions are those derived from the interaction between the reactive species formed by the radiolysis of water, such as the hydroxyl radical, and the target molecules. The hydroxyl radical OH is able to react with the sugar-phosphate backbone of the DNA chain giving rise to the elimination of hydrogen atoms from the sugar. This causes the scission of the phosphate ester bonds and subsequent appearance of single strand breaks. Double strand breaks occur when two single strand breaks take place in each chain of the double helix at a close distance. Bases are also attacked by the free radicals generated by radiolysis, but it is not clear whether this is relevant to cell death (Moseley 1989).

The mechanism of inactivation of bacterial cells by ultrasound under pressure has also been described. Most authors agree that the cavitation phenomenon is responsible for the lethal effects of ultrasound (Kinsloe et al. 1954; Raso et al. 1998a). When bubbles implode under an intense ultrasonic field, very high pressures and temperatures are generated, and consequently strong mechanical forces and free radicals are formed (Suslick 1990). Free radicals could therefore inactivate bacterial cells in a similar mode as that described for IR. However, experimental data using free radical scavengers have lead to the conclusion that the possible effect of free radicals is negligible in comparison with that of the strong mechanical effects generated by cavitation (Allison et al. 1996; Raso et al. 1998a). Raso et al. (1998a) studied the effect of equivalent heat, MS and MTS treatments (99% of inactivation) on the degree of cell disruption evaluated through phase contrast microscopy and they observed that whereas heat-treated cells maintained full cellular integrity, MS treated cells were completely broken. MTS treated cells showed a medium degree of disruption. These results confirmed that ultrasound inactivate microbial cells through envelope breakdown in an ‘all or nothing’ type phenomenon.

There are however some unclear aspects still not solved regarding the mechanism of action of ultrasound. In some experimental conditions, and with some bacterial species, a synergistic effect of MS and heat (MTS) has been observed. This is the case of Enterococcus faecium (Pagán et al. 1999c), heat-shocked cells of Listeria monocytogenes (Pagán et al. 1999b) and cells suspended in a low water activity media (Álvarez et al. 2003b). The reasons for the increased sensitivity of these cells to a combined MS-heat treatment are still not known. It has been suggested that moderately elevated temperatures (55–60°C) would cause a weakening effect on cell envelopes, facilitating the mechanical disruption of the cell by ultrasonic waves (Álvarez et al. 2003b). This weakening effect would have no relevance for thermosensitive cells, as they are killed by heat at relatively low temperatures.

In addition, a synergistic effect of MS and heat has been described for bacterial spores (Raso et al. 1998b). Ultrasonic treatments cause the release of some low molecular weight polypeptides and dipicolinic acid from the spore (Palacios et al. 1991). It has also been found that MS treatments sensitize spores of Bacillus subtilis to lysozyme (Raso et al. 1998b). Therefore, it has been suggested that ultrasonic waves could damage the external layers of the spore, facilitating its rehydration and consequently reducing its extreme heat resistance.

In contrast to the clear mechanisms of inactivation proposed for irradiation and ultrasound, a much more complicated picture emerges for high hydrostatic pressure inactivation. Much research has been carried out in this matter, but there is still controversy about the key target leading to cell death by high pressure.

Initial investigations on mechanism of inactivation of HHP suggested the cytoplasmic membrane as the key target (Cheftel 1995; Smelt 1998; Patterson 1999), and most researchers still agree with that hypothesis despite some apparent inconsistencies having been reported. Evidences of bacterial membranes being a target for HHP inactivation are clear. High pressure causes tighter packing of the acyl chains within the phospholipid bilayer of membranes and promotes membrane transition from liquid crystalline to gel phase, in a similar way as a temperature downshift (MacDonald 1993). Although phase transition of membrane lipids is not necessarily lethal to bacteria, it has been demonstrated that the composition and state of the bacterial cell membrane prior to pressure treatment affect bacterial resistance to HHP (Casadei et al. 2002). Cells with a more fluid membrane, i.e. with a higher degree of unsaturation are more barotolerant (Casadei et al. 2002). It is not clear how a more fluid membrane renders a more resistant cell to HHP. The pressure at which phase transition occurs would be higher in cells with a more fluid membrane, but it is not known in which circumstances, if any, cell damage is linked to phase transition.

Damage to the cytoplasmic membrane after pressurization has also been repeatedly reported, through loss of osmotic responsiveness (Pagán and Mackey 2000; Mañas and Mackey 2004), uptake of vital dyes (Shigehisa et al. 1991; Benito et al. 1999; Pagán and Mackey 2000; Mañas and Mackey 2004), loss of intracellular material, and formations of buds and vesicles of lipidic origin (Perrier-Cornet et al. 1999; Ritz et al. 2000; Mañas and Mackey 2004). The loss of function of some proteins including the F1F0 ATPase or multidrug efflux pumps has also been described (Smelt et al. 1994; Wouters et al. 1998; Molina-Hoppner et al. 2004). Even a direct relationship between loss of membrane integrity and loss of viability has been found for pressure-treated exponentially growing cells (Pagán and Mackey 2000; Mañas and Mackey 2004). However, it has also been demonstrated that both outer and cytoplasmic membrane permeabilization is transient to some extent (Hauben et al. 1996; Pagán and Mackey 2000; Ganzle and Vogel 2001; Mañas and Mackey 2004) and that pressure-treated stationary-phase cells of Escherichia coli may maintain a physically intact cytoplasmic membrane upon decompression even in dead cells (Pagán and Mackey 2000; Mañas and Mackey 2004). Therefore, other structures inside the cell have also been proposed as potential key targets for inactivation by HHP.

Some authors have reported similarities between cell inactivation and protein denaturation kinetics by HHP (Sonoike et al. 1992), and changes in the conformation of the nucleoid, ribosomes and cytoplasmic protein have been described (Mackey et al. 1994; Niven et al. 1999; Mañas and Mackey 2004). Niven et al. (1999) found a direct relationship between loss of viability in E. coli and ribosome damage, evaluated by differential scanning calorimetry. Further incubation of treated cells in a magnesium-rich medium, which is known to have a stabilizing effect on ribosome structure, aided the ribosomes to recover the initial conformation. The authors concluded that other factors together with ribosome initial destabilization accounted for cell death and suggested that the loss of essential ions like magnesium through a damaged membrane could be the event triggering ribosome destabilization. Moreover, Perrier-Cornet et al. (1999) correlated loss of viable cells of yeasts of the genus Saccharomyces with the loss of internal solutes caused by the pressure-induced cell permeabilization during HHP treatment.

It seems clear that some of these cellular lesions like DNA and protein condensation are not necessarily lethal (Mañas and Mackey 2004) and are repairable if the cell keeps a functional membrane and the environmental conditions are suitable.

In conclusion, HHP inactivation seems to be multitarget in nature. Membrane is a key target, but in some cases additional damaging events such as extensive solute loss during pressurization, protein coagulation, key enzyme inactivation and ribosome conformational changes, together with impaired recovery mechanisms, seem also needed to kill bacteria.

Bacterial spores are extremely resistant to HHP, being able to withstand up to 1000 MPa for long treatment times, unless they are in the germinated state (Cheftel 1995). Pressure itself at a moderate level induces spore germination (Gould and Sale 1970). This has been the basis for the design of a cyclic combined treatment in which spores are induced to germinate in a first step and inactivated in a second step, generally by a combination of mild heat and pressure (Raso and Barbosa-Cánovas 2003).

Membrane structural or functional alteration is generally accepted as the cause of cell death by PEF. Sale and Hamilton (1967) demonstrated that the inactivation was the result of the direct effect of PEF on the membrane (electroporation) rather than because of the temperature increase or the electrolysis products. Electroporation can be defined as the formation of pores in cells and organelles, and the most accepted theory to explain it is that proposed by Zimmermann et al. (1974). Zimmermann compares the cell membrane to a capacitor. Free charges tend to accumulate in the inner and outer surface of the membrane generating a transmembrane potential of about 10 mV. When an external electric field is applied, as in PEF treatment, a higher amount of free charges of opposite charge accumulate at both membrane surfaces, resulting in compression of the membrane. When the external electric field exceeds a critical value or threshold, the membrane is unable to withstand the electrocompression and pores are formed. The size and amount of pores depend on the electric field strength and the duration of the treatment. Alternative theories propose that the permeabilization is the consequence of dipolar reorientation of the membrane phospholipids under an electric field (Tsong 1991). Tsong (1991) has also suggested that the formation of hydrophilic pores would lead to a localized Joule heating phenomenon that could be responsible for the denaturation of proteins and phase changes in the membrane.

Studies on electron microscopy of several bacteria and yeasts have shown morphological alterations like surface roughness, disruption of organelles, ruptures in the membrane, etc. (Jayaram and Castle 1992; Pothakamury et al. 1997; Dutreux et al. 2000). However, no correspondence between the frequencies of appearance of morphological alterations with loss of viability has been proven (Aronsson and Rönner 2001). Many attempts have been made to establish whether there is a relationship between membrane damage and microbial inactivation by PEF. Using vital staining and detection of UV-absorbing material leakage various researchers have shown the occurrence of membrane permeabilization in relation to cell death (Hamilton and Sale 1967; Simpson et al. 1999; Wouters et al. 2001b). Wouters et al. (2001b) have described a linear relationship between the percentage of permeabilized cells and the intensity of the PEF treatment, supporting the hypothesis of membrane permeabilization being the cause of cell inactivation.

An interesting and almost nonexplored aspect of PEF treatments is the occurrence of reversible pores. The same way as it happens with high pressure (Pagán and Mackey 2000), a proportion of cell membranes could become leaky during PEF treatment but reseal to a certain extent after it. Experiments carried out in our laboratory using the addition of propidium iodide to the treatment medium as a marker of nonpermanent permeabilization of the cytoplasmic membrane, have shown that the degree of staining of Salmonella serotype Senftenberg 775 W cells was approximately twice as that observed when the propidium iodide was added after PEF treatment. These results would indicate that a percentage of cells were able to reseal their pores just after PEF treatment.

3.2 Sublethal injury

Micro-organisms surviving the lethal action of preservation agents may be sublethally injured: able to repair the damage and outgrow only if the environmental conditions are suitable (Mackey 2000). The occurrence of sublethal injury has two main consequences. First, injured cells might not be detected when selective conditions are used for enumeration of survivors. This can lead to an overestimation of the lethality of the treatment. Secondly, the occurrence of sublethal injury means in practice that a delay time between treatment and outgrowth of survivors takes place. Alternatively, if repair is adequately prevented by the combination of additional preservation agents (hurdles) that interfere with cellular homeostasis maintenance, the cell might not be able to outgrow, and the inactivation level attained might be higher (Mackey 2000). Thus, detection and characterization of sublethal injury by novel preservation technologies is essential for the optimization of mild combined methods with a higher lethal effect on microbes.

Among the four methods for microbial inactivation reviewed here, only in the case of ultrasound under pressure have no sublethally injured cells been detected. Survival curves of MS treatments of Gram-positive and Gram-negative cells recovered in media with sodium chloride added are virtually identical to those recovered in a nonselective medium (Pagán et al. 1999a). This indicates the total absence of repairable membrane damage and is in concordance with the hypothesis of the all or nothing lysis of the cell as the mechanism of inactivation of ultrasonic waves on bacterial cells.

Sublethal or repairable injury has been detected for irradiated, pressurized and PEF-treated cells. For each agent the mechanism of inactivation is different, and so is the nature and the magnitude of the sublethal injury.

Studies on sublethal cell injury and repair of irradiated cells have focused on DNA. It seems clear that the relative sensitivity of the different microbial groups depends not only on their susceptibility to the direct and indirect action of irradiation itself, but also on their capability of repairing the single and double strand breaks through several enzymatic actions (Moseley 1989). Irradiation, however, does not discriminate among molecules in a sample, and virtually all the molecules in an irradiated cell may be affected. Irradiation damage to other structures has been scarcely studied. Some authors have reported the sensitization of irradiated cells to selective media (Patterson 1989; Tartéet al. 1996; Buchanan et al. 1999) but Kim and Thayer (1996) showed that irradiation did not induce membrane damage as detected by vital dye staining. It is not clear whether the secondary hurdle added (salt, acid, CO2) would exert its inhibitory action either towards the damaged DNA as suggested by Kim and Thayer (1996) with heat, interfering with DNA repair systems or at any other level.

Bacterial membranes are the main target for sublethal injury in HHP treated cells. Permeabilization of the outer and cytoplasmic membrane has been described (Pagán and Mackey 2000; Ganzle and Vogel 2001) and combined treatments of HHP and antimicrobial peptides in the pressurizing medium, such as lysozyme, nisin, pediocin AcH, lacticin, lactoferrin and lactoferricin with increased efficacy for both Gram-positive and Gram-negative micro-organisms have been proposed (Hauben et al. 1996; Kalchayanand et al. 1998). However the permeabilization of the outer membrane of Gram-negative cells is transient and a fully functional membrane is recovered automatically shortly after decompression (Chilton et al. 2001). On the contrary, cytoplasmic membrane damage repair is highly demanding, and requires energy, RNA and protein synthesis (Chilton et al. 2001). An intact cytoplasmic membrane is essential for the maintenance of the homeostasis under unfavourable environmental conditions, and thus, from a practical point of view, combinations of HHP with alkali, salt or acidic environment also attain a higher lethal effect on micro-organisms (García-Graells et al. 1998; Pagán et al. 2001; Wuytack et al. 2003; Sherry et al. 2004).

The occurrence of sublethal cell damage in PEF-treated cells is a matter of controversy. Most authors have not observed the occurrence of sublethal injury using the selective medium plating technique (Simpson et al. 1999; Dutreux et al. 2000; Ulmer et al. 2002; Wuytack et al. 2003) so it was generally accepted that bacterial inactivation by PEF was an all-or-nothing effect. However, recent results obtained in our laboratory (García et al. 2003) have shown the occurrence of sublethal cytoplasmic membrane damage in a large proportion of the population of Gram-negative cells (≥99·9% of survivors) estimated by differential plating. Unpublished results of our research group indicate that the discrepancies in published data may arise from the fact that the occurrence of sublethal membrane damage by PEF treatments depends on the pH of the suspending medium and on the bacterial species. In this way, several Gram-negative bacteria showed a higher resistance to PEF at acidic pH (when compared with neutral pH) that was correlated to the capability to repair the cytoplasmic membrane, which was extensively damaged. For Gram-positive cells the opposite was true, the greater resistance to PEF, the occurrence of membrane damage and the subsequent repair ability was detected at neutral pH. At acidic pH the cells became more sensitive and irreversibly damaged. It is worthy of note that PEF-sublethally injured cells stored under acidic conditions lost viability during storage time. This means, from a practical point of view, that if adequate post-treatment holding conditions are selected, the intensity of treatments, both for HHP and PEF, could be diminished without affecting the microbial quality of the product. Alternatively, a higher degree of safety could be attained.

We have also detected the occurrence of sublethal damage to the outer membrane in PEF-treated Psychrobacter immobilis by differential plating techniques (P. Mañas, unpublished data). The role of the outer membrane in PEF inactivation needs further attention. These observations provide new useful data that contribute to the understanding of mechanisms of membrane electroporation in bacterial cells. They also contribute to clarify the environmental circumstances under which PEF might act synergistically with other hurdles for food preservation. Further work is in progress.

3.3 Stress adaptation and resistance

It is well known that micro-organisms can develop adaptive responses and resistances when exposed to sublethal stresses (Abee and Wouters 1999), which may have serious implications for food safety. In the last 15 years much research interest has been directed towards the elucidation of bacterial stress adaptation mechanisms and gene regulation behind it. The modification of sigma factors (σ) bound to core RNA polymerase, conferring promoter specificity, is possibly the most important regulatory mechanism in bacterial cells (Abee and Wouters 1999). Sigma factor σs regulates, in Gram-negative bacteria, the transcription of more than 50 genes involved in resistance to osmotic, heat, oxidative and acid stress, among others (Huisman et al. 1996). The induction of this sigma factor occurs in response to starvation, generally when cells enter the stationary phase of growth, and also when exponentially growing cells are subjected to stresses other than starvation (Dodd and Aldsworth 2002). In Gram-positive bacteria (B. subtilis, L. monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus) an alternative sigma factor with equivalent physiological functions has been described (sigB) (Abee and Wouters 1999; Hill et al. 2002). Therefore, it seems that a parallel mechanism for the acquisition of multiple stress resistance exists in Gram-positive and Gram-negative cells. The influence of the activation of these regulatory networks on bacterial resistance to novel preservation processes has not yet been sufficiently studied. Nevertheless, it is known that the higher resistance to HHP of stationary phase cells is partly the result of the presence of the RpoS protein in E. coli and sigB in L. monocytogenes (Robey et al. 2001; Wemekamp-Kamphuis et al. 2004). A range of morphological and physiological changes dependent on RpoS expression has been described for Salmonella and Escherichia cells that might possibly account for the increase in pressure resistance (Huisman et al. 1996). It can be foreseen that these changes might also have an influence on bacterial resistance to PEF, ultrasound and irradiation, but up to now no data are available on the influence of the RpoS/sigB regulon on the resistance to these technologies.

Sigma factor σ32, encoded by the rpoH gene, controls the heat shock response, which consists of a rapid and transient overexpression of chaperons and proteases. The application of sublethal HHP treatments promotes the expression of several heat shock proteins (Welch et al. 1993), suggesting a direct role of the heat shock response in HHP resistance. In fact, it has been reported that a previous heat shock may protect cells against HHP (Pagán and Mackey 2000; Aersten et al. 2004). In addition, Aersten et al. (2004) have described that the basal expression of several heat shock proteins like dnaK, lon or clp is increased in pressure-resistant mutants (Hauben et al. 1997). The influence of a sublethal heat shock on PEF resistance has been scarcely investigated but Evrendilek and Zhang (2003) have shown that survival seems to be increased. Preliminary results obtained in our laboratory suggest that the ability to recover from PEF damage is also increased. More research is needed in this field.

The application of a heat shock does not protect bacteria to a subsequent MS treatment (Pagán et al. 1999b). This indicates that the possible changes that heat shock may induce in cell envelopes, if any, are not relevant to ultrasound resistance.

Although scattered information is available about the influence of other types of stresses on bacterial resistance to novel preservation methods, from published data it can be deduced that in most cases cross resistance is induced. Palhano et al. (2004) have described how the exposure to hydrogen peroxide, ethanol and cold-shock induces baroresistance in Saccharomyces cerevisie. Buchanan et al. (2004) have reported the increase of irradiation resistance of E. coli O157:H7 when cells were previously acid adapted. Likewise, acid, cold and heat adaptation also seems to protect this micro-organism to PEF treatments (Evrendilek and Zhang 2003).

In summary, adaptation of micro-organisms to adverse environmental conditions during processing poses a risk that should not be underestimated. Extensive research is still needed to characterize the physiology and genetics of microbial stress responses involved in survival to food preservation processes.

4. Factors affecting microbial resistance

Microbial inactivation by irradiation, ultrasound under pressure, HHP and PEF has been found to depend on many factors. Effective comparison of data published in literature is hampered by the diversity of equipments and experimental conditions employed by the different authors. Nevertheless, this section tries to give an overview on the most relevant factors affecting resistance to novel technologies. The factors are classified into three groups: process parameters, microbial characteristics and product parameters. A summary of the most important factors for each technology is given in Table 2.

Table 2.  Factors affecting microbial inactivation by irradiation (IR), manosonication (MS), high hydrostatic pressure (HHP) and pulsed electric field (PEF)
  1. V, viruses; S, spores; Y & M, yeasts and moulds; G+, Gram-positive vegetative cells; G−, Gram-negative cells.

Process parametersDose (kGy)Treatment time (min)Treatment time (min)Treatment time: number of pulses × pulse width (μs)
TemperatureAmplitude (60–150 μm)Pressure (100–600 MPa)Electric field strength (9–50 kV cm−1)
Pressure (0–300 KPa)TemperaturePulse specific energy (J ml−1)
Temperature Temperature
Microbial characteristics
 ResistanceV > S > Y & M >  G+ > G−S > G+ > G−S > G+ > G−, Y & MS > G+ > G− > Y & M
 Spore inactivationAt high doseAt high intensityCyclic treatmentsNot possible
 Intraspecies variationMediumLowLargeMedium
Product parametersOxygenWater activityCompositionComposition
Composition Water activityWater activity
Water activity pH (recovery)pH (treatment/recovery)

4.1 Process parameters

Some process parameters are intrinsic to each technology and no general conclusions can be drawn. For instance, the intensity of an irradiation treatment is given by the irradiation dose absorbed, as the radiation energy is normally fixed (van Gerwen et al. 1999). Critical inherent parameters for ultrasound under pressure are treatment time, amplitude of the ultrasonic waves and external pressure applied (Raso et al. 1998a). Whereas HHP efficacy depends on treatment time and pressure (Smelt et al. 2002), PEF lethality varies with parameters such as electric field strength, pulse characteristics and frequency, apart from treatment time (Wouters et al. 2001a).

There are, however, some process parameters that are common for the four technologies. This is the case for treatment temperature. As a general conclusion, as the temperature is raised, the lethality of the four technologies increases (Raso and Barbosa-Cánovas 2003). The lethal effects of irradiation on micro-organisms are more pronounced when the treatment is carried out at elevated temperatures. When irradiation takes place in the frozen state the sensitivity of the micro-organisms in reduced by a factor of 2–5 (van Gerwen et al. 1999), and this has been attributed to the reduced mobility of free radicals. The lethality of ultrasound under pressure treatments is almost not modified by an increase in temperature unless lethal temperatures are reached (MTS treatments), in which case an additive lethal effect is generally attained although in some cases the total lethal effect has been found to be synergistic (Pagán et al. 1999b,c; Álvarez et al. 2003b) (see section 3.1). The effect of temperature on high pressure inactivation is complex. Combinations of HHP with mild treatment temperature lead to a higher lethal effect (Patterson and Kilpatrick 1998; Alpas et al. 2000), and this has been attributed to a higher degree of damage on proteins (Sonoike et al. 1992). Also treatment temperatures below 20–30°C inactivate cells faster (Casadei et al. 2002), and this effect has been proposed to be the result of the reduced fluidity of the membrane. Regarding the effect of treatment temperature on PEF lethality, increases in temperature, both at nonlethal and lethal values, improve the efficacy of the treatment. This effect has been related to a higher fluidity of the membrane that would make cells more susceptible to pore formation (Jayaram and Castle 1992).

4.2 Microbial characteristics

Data on the resistance of representative micro-organisms to medium-intensity irradiation, ultrasound under pressure, HHP and PEF treatments are shown in Table 3. Maximum inactivation levels attained with each technology will depend on factors such as equipment technical developments and food characteristics. We would like to point out that comparison of data is hampered by the different equipments, treatment media, strains, etc. Therefore, data in the table are for illustrative purposes.

Table 3.  Lethality of irradiation (IR), manosonication (MS), high hydrostatic pressure (HHP) and pulsed electric field (PEF) treatments
Microbial groupIR*MS†HHP‡PEF§
  1. *Log cycles after 1·5 kGy.

  2. †Log cycles after 5-min treatment at 117 μm and 200 KPa.

  3. ‡Log cycles after 15-min treatment at 300 MPa.

  4. §Log cycles after 200 μs treatment at 22 kV cm−1.

Bacterial spores0–10–100
Gram positives (vegetative cells)1–41–3<1–2<1–3
Gram negatives3 to >94–61–73–4
Yeasts and moulds0–1ND2 to >83–5

As a general rule, bacterial spores are the most resistant micro-organisms to physical stresses (Grahl and Markl 1996; Smelt 1998; van Gerwen et al. 1999; Pagán et al. 1999c; Patterson 1999; Wouters et al. 2001a). Gram-positive bacteria are more resilient than Gram negatives, and this has been attributed to the greater rigidity of their envelopes. Resistance of yeasts and moulds is quite variable. In general, they are more resistant to irradiation than nonsporulated prokaryotic cells (Patterson and Loaharanu 2000). On the contrary, yeasts are more sensitive to PEF than prokaryotic cells, and this difference is specially evidenced at low electric field strengths, as the minimal electric field strength threshold needed to inactivate yeast is lower (Sale and Hamilton 1967). Yeasts and moulds are considered to be sensitive to HHP, but wide differences among genus have been detected.

Regarding viruses inactivation, they are among the most radiation resistant micro-organisms, and within the practical limits irradiation is considered not to be effective in virus elimination (Patterson and Loaharanu 2000). According to Smelt (1998), the HHP resistance of viruses depends on their structure, which is heterogeneous. Human rotavirus and hepatitis A virus are inactivated to safe levels with treatments of 300 MPa/2 min and 450 MPa/5 min, respectively (Khadre and Yousef 2002; Kingsley et al. 2002). The inactivation of viruses by PEF has been scarcely studied, but Khadre and Yousef (2002) reported no decrease in infectious dose of human rotavirus after PEF treatments of 20–29 kV cm−1 for 146 μs. No data are available on the resistance of viruses to ultrasound.

In addition, cell size and shape seem to have a role in resistance to physical stresses. The smaller the cell size, the higher the resistance to ultrasound, HHP and PEF (Cheftel 1995; Pagán et al. 1999c; Heinz et al. 2001). Coccoid cells tend to be more resilient than rod-shaped cells. Nevertheless there are many exceptions to these general rules.

It should be noted that in some cases intraspecific variation is of great importance. Benito et al. (1999) reported differences in survival to HHP treatments of more than 6 log cycles among natural isolates of E. coli O157. Sherry et al. (2004) found between 1 and 2 log cycles of difference in the fraction of surviving cells among 40 Salmonella strains subjected to irradiation and pressure treatments. Intraspecies variability in resistance to PEF has also been demonstrated with L. monocytogenes (Lado and Yousef 2003) and Salmonella enterica (Álvarez et al. 2003b). Moreover, the isolation of pressure-resistant strains has been reported (Hauben et al. 1997). These data raise concern as an adequate target strain should always be selected for designing safe processes. In addition, the lack of relationship between the resistances of a given strain to various stresses emphasizes the necessity of carefully choosing the most appropriate strain for each agent.

This wide variation of resistance among strains of the same species has not been found for ultrasound under pressure treatments. Salmonella strains that differed greatly in their heat resistances were almost identical in their resistance to MS treatments (Mañas et al. 2000).

Microbial resistance to different physical agents depends not only on the intrinsic resistance of the micro-organisms but also on their physiological state. It is well known that bacterial heat resistance varies widely depending on the growth phase, growth temperature and exposure to previous stressing environments (Tomlins and Ordal 1976). Cells in the exponential phase are generally more sensitive to all types of agents (see section 3.3). Data about the influence of growth temperature are scattered and in many cases inconclusive. It seems to be an important factor determining HHP resistance, but its effect is different in exponential and stationary phase cells (Casadei et al, 2002).

4.3 Product parameters

Environmental factors, such as composition of the treatment medium, pH, water activity or addition of preservative substances, strongly affect the resistance of micro-organisms to heat. The relative influence of such factors on microbial resistance to novel technologies depends on their mechanisms of action. Additional factors of special relevance in a particular technology have been identified (see Table 2). For instance, one of the most important factors influencing irradiation sensitivity is the composition of the treatment atmosphere. The presence of oxygen during irradiation has been found to enhance lethal effect because of oxygen radical formation (van Gerwen et al. 1999).

As a general rule, rich media exert a protective effect on bacteria against physical agents. This has repeatedly reported for heat treatments and similar results have been found for new technologies, except ultrasound under pressure, where, as for the rest of factors studied, a very small influence of medium composition has been described (Mañas et al. 2000).

Water activity of the suspending medium is possibly the environmental factor that modifies heat resistance in largest magnitude. It has been reported that the survival of Salmonella serovar Typhimurium to irradiation is increased in low water activity meat (van Gerwen et al. 1999). Water activity also affects resistance to ultrasound under pressure. Listeria monocytogenes suspended in a medium with aw of 0·93 showed a decimal reduction time to a MS treatment twofold greater as that obtained in a medium with aw 0·99 (Pagán et al. 1999a). The magnitude of this protective effect is very small when compared with other technologies, but it is worthy of note that a decrease in the aw of the treatment medium is practically the unique environmental factor capable of protecting bacteria against MS. Regarding HHP inactivation, Molina-Hoppner et al. (2004) have suggested that the protective effect of media of low aw in Lactococcus lactis depends on the solute added. Sucrose protects cells against HHP inactivation through stabilization of membrane protein functionality. However, the addition of sodium chloride exerts a physical effect, increasing the phase transition of membrane phospholipids. Studies on the influence of aw on PEF microbial inactivation are very limited but all agree that reduced aw media increase PEF tolerance (Aronsson and Rönner 2001; Álvarez et al. 2003c). Álvarez et al. (2003c) have observed that aw decrease from 0·99 to 0·93 increased the PEF survival of Yersinia enterocolitica by 3.5 log cycles after an 800 μs at 22 kV cm−1. The reasons for this protection are unknown.

The pH of the treatment medium is one of the factors modifying bacterial resistance with a more obvious practical side. The combination of acidification with heat has been used for decades to reduce the intensity of sterilization treatments for canned products, as acid pH decreases thermal resistance of micro-organisms (Tomlins and Ordal 1976). On the contrary, it has been demonstrated that acid pH has little effect on bacterial resistance to irradiation (Buchanan et al. 2004). It does not affect ultrasound under pressure resistance either (Pagán et al. 1999a). Regarding HHP inactivation, from published results it seems that bacterial cells are more sensitive to pressure in acidic media (Alpas et al. 2000), but the magnitude of the effect is not remarkable. On the contrary, the pH of the treatment medium has a great influence on PEF resistance, but it depends on the species studied (see section 3.2) (Wouters et al. 2001a; García et al. 2003).

5. Kinetics of inactivation

The application of any new technology in food preservation requires a reliable model that accurately describes the inactivation rate. The model should be able to establish appropriate treatment conditions to achieve known levels of microbial inactivation, allowing the production of stable and safe foods. Models should be simple, and ideally, they should be built on parameters based on the physiological mechanism of inactivation (Smelt et al. 2002).

Thermal processing parameters have generally been calculated through the first order kinetics model. This model assumes that microbial inactivation results from the chance of the lethal agent striking the key target. As a result, a straight survival curve (plot of the logarithm of the fraction of survival cells vs treatment time) is obtained, and decimal reduction times (D values) and z values are used to calculate treatment parameters.

However in the last 10 years the suitability of first order kinetics for the modelling of heat inactivation, as well as for novel technologies, is being reconsidered. This is because of the frequent occurrence of deviations, such as shoulders and tails (Humpheson et al. 1998; Benito et al. 1999; Raso et al. 2000; Wouters et al. 2001a,b; Smelt et al. 2002). Several theories have been proposed to explain these deviations, which may be different for spores and for vegetative cells. Shoulders have been mainly attributed to the occurrence of sublethal injury, multitarget inactivation, cell clumping or activation phenomena for spores. Tails are considered to be the reflection of resistance heterogeneity within the population, either inherent to the bacterial cells or acquired during the treatment. They are commonly detected when survival curves go beyond 4–5 log cycles (Smelt et al. 2002).

Typical survival curves of irradiation, ultrasound under pressure, HHP and PEF are shown in Fig. 1. Note that irradiation survival curves represent the log fraction of survivors vs irradiation dose, instead of treatment time. Shoulders have been reported for bacterial inactivation by irradiation, and it has been attributed to repairable cellular damage in the low dose range (Moseley 1989; van Gerwen et al. 1999). Tails have also been detected, especially in complex media such as fishmeal and crabmeat (Patterson and Loaharanu 2000). First order kinetics inactivation is normally described for ultrasound under pressure. This is in agreement with the existence of a single key target and an all-or-nothing type inactivation mechanism. It also fits with the absence of adaptation phenomena and with the small intra- and interspecies variation in resistance to MS. Survival curves for HHP and PEF treatments show pronounced tails, concave upwards in shape (Benito et al. 1999; Raso et al. 2000; Wouters et al. 2001a,b; Smelt et al. 2002). It is noteworthy that HHP and PEF treatments are homogeneous throughout the whole sample, and therefore every cell is subjected to the same stress.

Figure 1.

Typical survival curves for irradiation (a), manosonication (b), high hydrostatic pressure (c) and pulsed electric field (d) treatments

Several approaches have been proposed to explain the reasons for the upward concavity of survival curves. Some authors have considered that this kind of curves are biphasic and reflect the first order inactivation of two distinct microbial subpopulations, each one homogeneous in resistance (Humpheson et al. 1998). A concave upwards curve could also be justified by a continuous distribution of resistance within the microbial population (Smelt et al. 2002).

A number of models have been developed to describe nonlinear curves, such as the log-logistic model, the Hülsheger model, and models based on the Weibull distribution, among others (Smelt et al. 2002). These later have been by far the most used by several laboratories to describe nonlinear microbial inactivation by heat, PEF and HHP. Models based on the Weibull distribution are characterized by their simplicity, as only two parameters determine the curve course, and also their versatility, as they can accurately fit either straight, concave upwards or concave downwards survival curves. Probably their most important drawback is the lack of biological significance of the parameters of the models, which limits their application.

Nowadays there are considerable amounts of data on bacterial inactivation by PEF that have been accurately described through the Weibull model. A secondary model that describes the variation of the kinetic parameters of the Weibull model with the electric field strength has been described for several micro-organisms (Álvarez et al. 2003a). From this secondary model, a zPEF parameter, equivalent to the z-value for thermal treatments, can be defined that allows the comparison of relative microbial resistances at different electric field strengths. Álvarez et al. (2003a) have also developed a tertiary model that enables treatment conditions necessary to achieve a certain level of inactivation of the bacterial population to be determined.

On the contrary, microbial inactivation by HHP has been studied since a long time; but very few kinetic studies have been carried out. This is partly because of the fact that adiabatic heating during compression interferes with HHP, and under some experimental conditions the inactivation is the result of the combined effect of pressure and temperature. Therefore data analysis becomes rather difficult. Pressure rigs provided with temperature control devices are available in some laboratories, and a few studies published have shown the good fitting of the Weibull model to HHP kinetics (Chen and Hoover 2003). Even secondary models that allow the prediction of the lethality at different pressures and temperatures have been proposed (Chen and Hoover 2003). However data are scarce and a thorough kinetics study should be carried out.

As a summary, a number of nonlinear models have been developed in the last years that can be used to adequately describe inactivation curves, and their application is highly simplified by current computer resources. We strongly believe that more research in this field is needed to compile kinetic data on the inactivation of spoilage and pathogenic micro-organisms for each technology. In addition, basic research to identify the causes and circumstances that favour the appearance of nonlinearity should be carried out.

6. Concluding Remarks

Irradiation, ultrasound under pressure, HHP and PEF are effective procedures to inactivate vegetative micro-organisms in foods, but the high resilience of spores limits their use as a sole method for food preservation. Therefore, these novel technologies are finding applications as hurdles that assure food safety through microbial inactivation in minimally processed high quality products. To fully exploit their potential, more research effort is needed to clarify mechanisms of inactivation, especially for HHP and PEF, to better understand the effect of environmental factors, and the occurrence of stress adaptation and sublethal injury, aspects of great relevance regarding food safety. Characterization of resistant strains may be useful in mechanistic studies. Identification and selection of target strains for each technology is also necessary. Finally, development of mathematical models based on physiological facts to establish treatment conditions is urgently needed. Ideally, models should consider the lethal event or events leading to death, the heterogeneity within the bacterial population and possible phenomena of adaptation and damage.