Derivation of uncertainty provides a way to standardize the expression of variability associated with any analytical procedure. The published information on uncertainty associated with data obtained using microbiological procedures is reviewed to highlight the causes and magnitude of such variability in food microbiology. We also suggest statistical procedures that can be used to assess variability (and hence, uncertainty), within and between laboratories, including procedures that can be used routinely by microbiologists examining foods, and the use of 'robust' methods which allow the retention of 'outlying' data. Although concerned primarily with variability associated with colony count procedures, we discuss also the causes of variability in presence/absence and indirect methods, such as limiting dilution, most probable number and modern instrumental methods of microbiological examination. Recommendations are also made concerning the most important precautions to be taken in order to minimize uncertainty in microbiology. These include strict internal controls at all stages of microbiological testing, as well as validation of methods, trend analysis, use of reference materials and participation in proficiency testing schemes. It is emphasized that the distribution of microbes in foods is inherently heterogeneous, and that this review only addresses uncertainty of measurement with respect to the sample taken, not the lot or consignment of food from which the sample was taken.