The survival and virulence of Listeria monocytogenes was assessed during storage on three low-moisture foods (LMFs), chocolate liquor, corn flakes and shelled, dry-roasted pistachios (a w 0.18, 0.27, 0.20). The LMFs were inoculated with a 4-strain cocktail of L. monocytogenes at 8 log CFU/g, dried, equilibrated and then stored at 4°C, 25–81% relative humidity (RH) and 23°C, 30–35% RH for at least 336 days. At 4°C, L. monocytogenes remained stable on the LMFs for at least 336 days. At 23°C, L. monocytogenes levels declined on the chocolate liquor, corn flakes and pistachios at initial rates of 0.84, 0.88 and 0.32 log CFU/g/month, respectively. After 8 months at 23°C, L. monocytogenes concentrations on the chocolate liquor and corn flakes decreased to below the limit of detection (i.e., 0.48 log CFU/g). Relative populations of each strain were assessed before (i.e., day 0) and after 6 and 12 months of storage at 23°C and 4°C, respectively. Generally, a decline in the relative abundance of the serotype 1/2a strain was observed during storage, coupled with the relative increase of other strains, depending on the LMF and storage temperature. The total viable populations of L. monocytogenes quantified by PMAxx-qPCR after 12-plus months of storage at 4°C were significantly higher than that obtained by plating on TSA-YE by 1.8 to 3.7 logs. Decreases in the culturable population of L. monocytogenes during storage on the LMFs were the result of both cellular inactivation and transition to a viable-but-non-culturable state. The surviving cells, specifically after long-term storage at 4°C on the chocolate liquor and pistachios, remained infectious and capable of intracellular replication in Caco-2 enterocytes. These results have great relevance for predictive modeling used in microbial health risk assessments and support the addition of LMFs to food safety questionnaires conducted during listeriosis outbreaks.
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