Standard plate counts (SPC) and psychrotrophic plate counts (PPC) from chocolate milk samples were compared with those of unflavored milk samples plated within 24 h of processing and at 7, 10, and 14 days of storage at 6 degrees C using matched samples collected over four time periods from four milk-processing plants. Bacterial numbers within 24 h of processing were not significantly different in unflavored and in chocolate milk samples (P > 0.001), with SPC less than 1,000 CFU/ml and PPC below 10 CFU/ml for both types of products. SPC and PPC were higher in chocolate milk samples than in unflavored milk samples collected from all four plants after 14 days of storage (P < 0.001). To examine the effects of chocolate milk components on bacterial numbers, SPC for days 0, 7, 14, and 21 were monitored in samples of experimentally prepared unflavored milk, milk with chocolate powder and sucrose (chocolate milk), milk with sucrose only, and milk containing chocolate powder only. At days 14 and 21, SPC were higher in both chocolate milk and in milk with chocolate powder only, than in either the unflavored milk or milk with sucrose only (P < 0.001). These findings suggest that the addition of chocolate powder to milk can contribute to a greater relative increase in bacterial numbers in pasteurized chocolate milk than in identically processed unflavored milk at 14 days postprocessing.