Duplicate beef gravy or ground beef samples inoculated with a suspension of a four-strain cocktail of Escherichia coli O157:H7 were subjected to sublethal heating at 46 degrees C for 15-30 min, and then heated to a final internal temperature of 60 degrees C. Survivor curves were fitted using a linear model that incorporated a lag period (TL), and D-values and 'time to a 4D inactivation' (T4D) were calculated. Heat-shocking allowed the organism to survive longer than non-heat-shocked cells; the T4D values at 60 degrees C increased 1.56- and 1.50-fold in beef gravy and ground beef, respectively. In ground beef stored at 4 degrees C, thermotolerance was lost after storage for 14 h. However, heat-shocked cells appeared to maintain their thermotolerance for at least 24 h in ground beef held to 15 or 28 degrees C. A 25 min heat shock at 46 degrees C in beef gravy resulted in an increase in the levels of two proteins with apparent molecular masses of 60 and 69 kDa. These two proteins were shown to be immunologically related to GroEL and DnaK, respectively. Increased heat resistance due to heat shock must be considered while designing thermal processes to assure the microbiological safety of thermally processed foods.