The purpose of this study was to evaluate the microbiological and sensory quality as well as the safety of ready-to-eat (RTE) cooked foods prepared in and distributed from a centralized kitchen to schools in Argentina. A total of 101 cooked food samples delivered as hot RTE cooked foods (group A) and as RTE cooked foods at room temperature (group B) and 140 surface swab environment samples were collected from February to November 1999. Petrifilm plates were used for aerobic (PAC), coliform (PCC), and Escherichia coli (PEC) counts. Standard methods were used to determine Enterobacteriaceae (EntC) and thermotolerant coliform counts (TCC). Samples were also tested for the presence of Salmonella spp., Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus cereus, and Clostridium perfringens. Food temperatures just before samples were put into containers ranged from 80 to 98°C and from 28 to 32°C for group A and group B, respectively. For group A food samples, PAC ranged from 1.04 to 3.50 log CFU/g, and PCC, PEC, TCC, and EntC were not detected. For group B food samples, PAC ranged from 3.63 to 6.48 log CFU/g, PCC ranged from 1.90 to 5.36 log CFU/g, TCC ranged from 1.30 to 3.95 log CFU/g, and EntC ranged from 3.60 to 5.46 log CFU/g. Of the foodborne pathogens, only B. cereus was isolated (63.4% of samples) in both food groups (<4 log CFU/g). The microbiological and sensory quality and the safety of group A foods were satisfactory. Large numbers of PAC and EntC detected in group B foods show that better control is needed to avoid potential foodborne diseases.

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