Factors influencing the accuracy of the plating method used to enumerate low numbers of viable micro-organisms in food

I. Jongenburger, M.W. Reij, E.P.J. Boer, L.G.M. Gorris, M.H. Zwietering

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This study aims to assess several factors that influence the accuracy of the plate count technique to estimate low numbers of micro-organisms in liquid and solid food. Concentrations around 10 CFU/mL or 100 CFU/g in the original sample, which can still be enumerated with the plate count technique, are considered as low numbers. The impact of low plate counts, technical errors, heterogeneity of contamination and singular versus duplicate plating were studied. Batches of liquid and powdered milk were artificially contaminated with various amounts of Cronobacter sakazakii strain ATCC 29544 to create batches with accurately known levels of contamination. After thoroughly mixing, these batches were extensively sampled and plated in duplicate. The coefficient of variation (CV) was calculated for samples from both batches of liquid and powdered product as a measure of the dispersion within the samples. The impact of technical errors and low plate counts were determined theoretically, experimentally, as well as with Monte Carlo simulations. CV-values for samples of liquid milk batches were found to be similar to their theoretical CV-values established by assuming Poisson distribution of the plate counts. However, CV-values of samples of powdered milk batches were approximately five times higher than their theoretical CV-values. In particular, powdered milk samples with low numbers of Cronobacter spp. showed much more dispersion than expected which was likely due to heterogeneity. The impact of technical errors was found to be less prominent than that of low plate counts or of heterogeneity. Considering the impact of low plate counts on accuracy, it would be advisable to keep to a lower limit for plate counts of 25 colonies/plate rather than to the currently advocated 10 colonies/plate. For a powdered product with a heterogeneous contamination, it is more accurate to use 10 plates for 10 individual samples than to use the same 10 plates for 5 samples plated in duplicate
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-40
JournalInternational Journal of Food Microbiology
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • measurement uncertainty
  • microbiology
  • colonies
  • plates


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