Recent large foodborne outbreaks caused by Salmonella enterica serovars have been associated with consumption of foods with high fat content and reduced water activity, even though their ingredients usually undergo pasteurization. The present study was focused on the heat tolerance of Salmonella enterica serovars Agona, Enteritidis, and Typhimurium in peanut butter. The Salmonella serovars in the peanut butter were resistant to heat, and even at a temperature as high as 90°C only 3.2-log reduction in CFU was observed. The obtained thermal inactivation curves were upwardly concave, indicating rapid death at the beginning (10 min) followed by lower death rates and an asymptotic tail. The curves fitted the nonlinear Weibull model with β parameters <1, indicating that the remaining cells have a lower probability of dying. β at 70°C (0.40 ± 0.04) was significantly lower than β at 80°C (0.73 ± 0.19) and 90°C (0.69 ± 0.17). Very little decrease in the viable population (less than 2-log decrease) was noted in cultures that were exposed to a second thermal treatment. Peanut butter is a highly concentrated colloidal suspension of lipid and water in a peanut meal phase. We hypothesized that differences in the local environments of the bacteria, with respect to fat content or water activity, explained the observed distribution and high portion of surviving cells (0.1%, independent of the initial cell number). These results demonstrate that thermal treatments are inadequate to consistently destroy Salmonella in highly contaminated peanut butter and that the pasteurization process cannot be improved significantly by longer treatment or higher temperatures.

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