Fourteen lots of cooked ham in modified atmosphere packaging (CH) were analyzed within a few days from packaging (S) and at the end of the shelf-life (E), after storage at 7 °C to simulate thermal abuse. Five more lots, rejected from the market because spoiled (R), were included in the study. Quality of the products was generally compromised during the shelf life, with only 4 lots remaining unaltered. Analysis of 16S rRNA gene amplicons resulted in 801 OTUs. S samples presented a higher diversity than E and R ones. At the beginning of the shelf life, Proteobacteria and Firmicutes dominated the microbiota, with Acinetobacter, Brochothrix, Carnobacterium, Lactobacillus, Prevotella, Pseudomonas, Psychrobacter, Weissella, Vibrio rumoiensis occurring frequently and/or abundantly. E and R samples were dominated by Firmicutes mostly ascribed to Lactobacillales. It is noteworthy the appearance of abundant Leuconostoc, negligible in S samples, in some E and R samples, while in other LAB were outnumbered by V. rumoiensis or Brochothrix thermosphacta. The microbiota of spoiled and R samples could not be clustered on the basis of specific defects (discoloration, presence of slime, sourness, and swollen packages) or supplemented additives. LAB population of S samples, averaging 2.9 log10(cfu/g), increased to 7.7 log10(cfu/g) in the E and R samples. Dominant cultivable LAB belonged to the species Lactobacillus sakei and Leuconostoc carnosum. The same biotypes ascribed to different species where often found in the corresponding S and R samples, and sometime in different batches provided from the same producer, suggesting a recurrent contamination from the plant of production. Consistently with growth of LAB, initial pH (6.26) dropped to 5.74 in E samples. Volatiles organic compound (VOCs) analysis revealed that ethanol was the major metabolite produced during the shelf life. The profile of volatile compounds got enriched with other molecules (e.g. 2-butanone, ethyl acetate, acetic acid, acetoin, butanoic acid, ethyl ester, butanoic acid, and 2,3-butanediol) mainly ascribed to microbial metabolism.
Keywords: 16S rRNA gene profiling; Cooked ham; MAP; Shelf life; Spoilage.
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