Heat is lethal to microorganisms, but each species has its own particular heat tolerance. During a thermal destruction process, such as pasteurization, the rate of destruction is logarithmic, as is their rate of growth. Thus bacteria subjected to heat are killed at a rate that is proportional to the number of organisms present. The process is dependent both on the temperature of exposure and the time required at this temperature to accomplish to desired rate of destruction. Thermal calculations thus involve the need for knowledge of the concentration of microorganisms to be destroyed, the acceptable concentration of microorganisms that can remain behind (spoilage organisms, for example, but not pathogens), the thermal resistance of the target microorganisms (the most heat tolerant ones), and the temperature time relationship required for destruction of the target organisms.
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The extent of the pasteurization treatment required is determined by the heat resistance of the most heat-resistant enzyme or microorganism in the food. For example, milk pasteurization historically was based on Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Coxiella burnetti, but with the recognition of each new pathogen, the required time temperature relationships are continuously being examined.
A thermal death curve for this process is shown below. It is a logarithmic process, meaning that in a given time interval and at a given temperature, the same percentage of the bacterial population will be destroyed regardless of the population present. For example, if the time required to destroy one log cycle or 90% is known, and the desired thermal reduction has been decided (for example, 12 log cycles), then the time required can be calculated. If the number of microorganisms in the food increases, the heating time required to process the product will also be increased to bring the population down to an acceptable level. The heat process for pasteurization is usually based on a 12 D concept, or a 12 log cycle reduction in the numbers of this organism.
Bacteria Z (°C) 5-10 D121 (min) 1-5
enzymes Z (°C) 30-40 D121 (min) 1-5
vitamins Z (°C) 20-25 D121 (min) 150-200
pigments Z (°C) 40-70 D121 (min) 15-50
The figure below (which is schematic and not to scale) illustrates the relative changes in time temperature profiles for the destruction of microorganisms. Above and to the right of each line the microorganisms or quality factors would be destroyed, whereas below and to the left of each line, the microorganisms or quality factors would not be destroyed. Due to the differences in Z values, it is apparent that at higher temperatures for shorter times, a region exists (shaded area) where pathogens can be destroyed while vitamins can be maintained. The same holds true for other quality factors such as colour and flavour components. Thus in UHT milk processing, very high temperatures for very short times (e.g., 140oC for 1-2 s) are favoured compared to a lower temperature longer time processes since it results in bacterial spore elimination with a lower loss of vitamins and better sensory quality.
Alkaline phosphatase is a naturally-occurring enzyme in raw milk which has a similar Z value to heat-resistant pathogens. Since the direct estimation of pathogen numbers by microbial methods is expensive and time consuming, a simple test for phosphatase activity is routinely used. If activity is found, it is assumed that either the heat treatment was inadequate or that unpasteurized milk has contaminated the pasteurized product.
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A working example of how to use D and Z values in pasteurization calculations:
Pooled raw milk at the processing plant has bacterial population of 4x10exp5/mL. It is to be processed at 79°C for 21 seconds. The average D value at 65°C for the mixed population is 7 min. The Z value is 7°C. How many organisms will be left after pasteurization? What time would be required at 65°C to accomplish the same degree of lethality?
At 79°C, the D value has been reduced by two log cycles from that at 65°C since the Z value is 7°C. Hence it is now 0.07 min. The milk is processed for 21/60=0.35 min, so that would accomplish 5 log cycle reductions to 4 organisms/mL. At 65°C, you would need 35 minutes to accomplish a 5D reduction.