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The relationship between water activity and fish spoilage during cold storage:
A review

Article  in  Journal of Food Agriculture and Environment · July 2009


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Meri-Rastilantie 3 B, FI-00980 Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment Vol.7 (3&4) : 86-90. 2009
Helsinki, Finland

The relationship between water activity and fish spoilage during cold storage:
A review
K.A. Abbas 1*, A. M. Saleh 2, A. Mohamed 1 and Ola Lasekan 1
Department of Food Technology, Faculty of Food Science and Technology, University Putra Malaysia, 43400 Serdang,
Selangor, Malaysia. 2 Mechanical Engineering Department, University of Technology, Iraq.

Received 17 May 2009, accepted 4 October 2009.

This review paper presents clearer picture about the relationship between spoilage of cold stored fish and water activity. The paper was an attempt
of presenting the recent existing information and the latest development in this regard. It covered the relationship between water activity and moisture
content, water activity control, spoilage of fish and its different phases and the relationship between the spoilage and water activity. The paper
revealed that during the initial period of storage some of the characteristics of the fish product reduce in intensity or are lost and in the later stage
bacterial degradation of tissues became evident. The water activity (aw) played an important factor in fish spoilage and the growth of different
microorganisms depends on its rate. If the aw reduced to 0.6, the growth of bacteria and moulds can be prevented. The detection of spoilage can be
determined by controlling water activity and in the same time can be retarded by reducing the aw of the fish by either drying or freezing to keep the
fish in good stage with high nutritional and organoleptic quality. The information presented in this study is very important and can assist in preventing
spoilage of fishes and their products particularly when production and processing operations are applied.

Key words: Fish spoilage, water activity, shelf life.

Food spoilage means the original nutritional value, texture and forward measure of the dryness of food, and foods typically have
flavour of the food are damaged, the food becomes harmful to an optimum water activity at which they have the longest shelf
people and unsuitable to eat 1. It is a metabolic process that causes life 7. In general, water activity is the right measurement when
foods to be undesirable or unacceptable for human consumption microbial processes, including food spoilage, are of concern 8.
due to changes in sensory characteristics 2, 3. Recently, many researches have been acknowledged with the
As soon as a fish dies, spoilage begins. Bacteria will enter at a objective of evaluating the spoilage of seafood in general and
number of points, through the gills and into the blood vessels, fish in particular 9-13.
through the lining of the belly cavity and eventually through the Accordingly, the objective of this study was to give clearer idea
skin. In the flesh they can grow and multiply rapidly, producing about the spoilage of fish in terms of its water activity as a main
disagreeable odours and flavours 4. factor influencing spoilage process. In the light of above, this
Spoilage of fresh fish is a rather complex process and is caused paper has been justified and the coming subtitles are essential to
by a number of inter-related systems, some of which are suppressed be explained.
by others. The factors which principally contribute to the spoilage
are the degradation of protein with a subsequent formation of The Relationship between Water Activity and Moisture Content
various products like hypoxanthine and trimethylamine, Water activity in foods belongs to food science professionals for
development of oxidative rancidity and the action of use in product development, quality control and food safety. It
microorganisms 1. also became an important criterion for the evaluation and control
Water activity is used in many cases as a Critical Control Point of food safety and quality. Usefulness of water activity as a tool
for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs. in quality and safety measurements was first suggested during
For many years researchers tried to equate bacterial growth 1950s when it became obvious that water content could not
potential with moisture content, they found that the values were adequately account for microbial growth limitations. Since water
not universal but specific to each food product. Earlier Scott 5 activity describes the continuum of energy states of the water in
established that it was the water activity, not water content that the system, it is improper to divide water into categories defined
correlated with bacterial growth. It was firmly established that as free bound or available water, as concluded in 2000 by panel of
growth of bacteria is inhibited at specific water activity values. experts on water activity 14.
FDA regulations for intermediate moisture foods are based on Water activity is related to moisture content in a non-linear
these values 6. It is widely used in food science as a simple, straight relationship known as a moisture sorption isotherm curve (Fig. 1).

86 Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment, Vol.7 (3&4), July-October 2009

Water content (%)


Relative reaction rate


Moisture content

0.0 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 1.0

Figure 1. The relationship between food water content and water

activity15. 0 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 1.0
Water activity
These isotherms are substance and temperature specific. Figure 2. Influence of a product’s water activity on types of reactions7.
Isotherms can be used to help predict product stability over time
in different storage conditions 15. post-harvest owing to microbial activity. An improved science-
Like pH, every microorganism has a minimum, optimum and based understanding of the growth and activity of spoilage
maximum water activity for growth. Yeasts and molds can grow at microorganisms in seafood and other foods is crucial for the
a low water activity (Fig. 2). However, 0.85 is considered the safe development of preservation techniques and subsequent
cutoff level for pathogen growth 16. Examples of moist foods (those reduction of losses due to spoilage 18.
with water activities above 0.85) include most fresh fish, fruits When microorganisms utilize food nutrients for growth and
and vegetables, actually having a relatively high water activity. It produce end-products or changes that are undesirable for humans,
is only safe because of the multiple barriers of pH, water activity, they are said to spoil the products. Spoilage may be due to flavors,
and mold growth, which is favored over pathogen growth 16. odors, colors or textures of the food. Spoilage is not necessarily
hazardous to humans but does cause food loss and is an economic
Cold Storage and Food Spoilage burden. In some cases, spoilage can be a good thing. When
Manifestations of food spoilage are many and varied, typically spoilage microorganisms grow in a food, pathogenic
resulting in an off smell or taste (Table 1). Generally food spoilage microorganisms often grow too. Therefore, spoilage may prevent
microorganisms are classified as yeasts, molds or bacteria. The persons from consuming a food that could be hazardous due to
spoilage flora, typical of diverse food commodities and products, the presence of pathogenic microorganisms 19.
is described in detail in recent publications by the International
Commission on Microbiological Specifications of Foods 17. Fish Spoilage
Spoilage comes from the action of bacteria, yeasts and molds After a fish dies, stiffening of the muscle called rigor mortis sets in
on foods and from chemical changes within the food. The spoiled and commences, due to the action of enzymes. Subsequently
food, if eaten, is likely to cause illness. Spoilage can be prevented softening of the flesh occurs as self-digestion proceeds. Fish
by storing foods at or below 40°F (4°C) and using them promptly spoilage involves autolysis or self digestion, which means enzymes
or storing them for longer periods at 0°F (-18°C) or below. Freezing found in the body of the fish start breaking down the stomach
slows chemical change and inhibits bacterial growth, but it does walls and eventually the belly cavity. The spoilage by
not kill all bacteria. microorganisms resulted in production of many compounds
Microbial food spoilage is an area of global concern as it has (Table 2). It has been found that flat or fatty fishes deteriorate
been estimated that as much as 25% of all food produced is lost more rapidly than round fish. Fish that has been excessively

Table 1. Spoilage processes and food characteristics 1.

Food Process Products Effects
Pectin (fruits) Pectinolysis Methanol, uronic acids Loss of fruit structure, soft fruits
Proteins (meat, fish) Proteolysis, deamination Amino acids, peptides, amines, H2S, Bitterness, souring, bad odour,
ammonia, indole sliminess
Carbohydrates (starchy foods) Hydrolysis, fermentations Organic acids, CO2, mixed alcohols Souring, acidification
Lipids (butter) Hydrolysis, fatty acid Glycerol and mixed fatty acids Rancidity, bitterness
Table 2. Typical spoilage compounds during spoilage of fresh fish stored aerobically
or packed in ice or at ambient temperature 1.

Specific microorganisms Typical spoilage compounds produced

Shewanella putrefaciens TMA, H2S, CH3SH, (CH3)2S, hypoxanthine (Hx )
Photobacterium phosphoreum TMA, Hx
Pseudomonas spp. Ketones, aldehydes, esters, non-H2S sulph..
Vibrionaceae TMA, H2S
Anaerobic spoilers NH3, acetic, butyric and propionic acid

Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment, Vol.7 (3&4), July-October 2009 87

handled undergoes quicker spoilage 20. Phase I (Autolytic changes, caused mainly by enzymes): Fish
After death the fish continues to secrete enzymes to digest the just caught is very fresh and has a sweet, sea weedy and delicate
food in its stomach. After the enzymes digest the food, they start taste. There is very little deterioration, with slight loss of the
acting on the flesh of the fish. Proteins and carbohydrates are characteristic odour and flavour. In some tropical species this
then broken down into simpler compounds. The fish becomes period can last for about 1 to 2 days or more after catching.
sweeter and more meaty after about a day or two on ice. Meanwhile Phase II (Autolytic changes, caused mainly by enzymes): There
the fish’s muscles still continue to function for a while. They use is a significant loss of the natural flavour and odour of fish. The
the energy reserved in the cells to do so, allowing the muscles to fish becomes neutral but has no off-flavours, the texture is still
remain relaxed. When all this energy is used up, the muscles begin pleasant.
to contract making the fish stiff. This is also known as rigor mortis. Phase III (Bacteriological changes, caused mainly by bacteria):
The pH of the fish also decreases acidic. Lactic acid is produced The fish begins to show signs of spoilage. There are strong off-
as a waste product from this burning of energy. At high temperature flavours and stale to unpleasant smells. Texture changes are
rigor starts within 1-2 hours 21. significant, fish becoming either soft or dry.
Microbes metabolize these amino acids, producing ammonia, Phase IV (Bacteriological changes, caused mainly by bacteria):
biogenic amines such as putrescine, histamine and cadaverine, Fish is spoiled and putrid, becoming inedible.
organic acids, ketenes and sulfur compounds 22-25. Degradation
of lipids in fatty fish produces rancid odors 26. In addition, marine Effect of water activity on fish spoilage: Food designers use
fish and some freshwater fish contain trimethylamine oxide that is water activity to formulate products that are shelf stable. If a
degraded by several spoilage bacteria to trimethylamine (TMA), product is kept below a certain water activity, then mold growth is
the compound responsible for fishy off odors. Iron is a limiting inhibited. This results in a longer shelf-life. Water activity values
nutrient in fish, and this favors growth of bacteria such as can also help limit moisture migration within a food product made
Pseudomonas that produce siderophores that bind iron 1. Spoilage with different ingredients. If raisins of a higher water activity are
bacteria differ somewhat for freshwater and marine fish and for packaged with bran flakes of a lower water activity, the water from
temperate and tropical water fish. Storage and processing the raisins will migrate to the bran flakes over time, resulting in
conditions also affect microbial growth. Pseudomonas and hard raisins and soggy bran flakes. Food formulators use water
Shewanella are the predominant species on chilled fresh fish under activity to predict how much moisture migration will affect their
aerobic conditions 27. Packing under carbon dioxide and addition product. In addition, water activity helps limit or slow certain
of low concentrations of sodium chloride favor growth of lactic undesirable reactions, such as non-enzymatic browning, fat
acid bacteria and Photobacterium phosphoreum. Heavily wet- oxidation, vitamin degradation, enzymatic reactions, protein
salted fish supports growth of yeasts while dried and salted fish denaturation, starch gelatinization and starch retrogradation. This
are spoiled by molds. Addition of organic acids selects for lactic too maintains product quality and extends shelf life 30.
acid bacteria and yeasts 20. Pasteurization kills vegetative bacteria Water activity is measure of the water available in a food that
but spores of Clostridium and Bacillus survive and may grow, microorganism can use for growth. Pure water, with no dissolved
particularly in unsalted fish 1. substances, is 100% available for use by microorganisms.
However, as certain materials, including salt and sugar, are
Phases of microbial spoilage in fish: Despite variation in dissolved in water, water activity is reduced and the water becomes
composition of the microflora on newly caught fish, seafood less available for use by microorganisms, i.e. it is “tied up.” The
products can be categorized into groups with similar microbial water activity scale is 0.00 to 1.00, where 1 is pure water and
ecology 28. Spoilage of fresh and lightly preserved fish products completely available for microorganisms 31.
is caused by microbial action. According to Gram and Dalgaard 1 Bacteria on temperate water fish are all classified according to
the four phases of fish spoilage are as follows (See also their growth temperature range as either psychrotrophs or
Fig. 1 and 3). psychrophiles. Psychrotrophs (cold-tolerant) are bacteria capable
of growth at 0°C but with optimum around 25°C. Psychrophiles
(cold-loving) are bacteria with maximum growth temperature around
Quality score 20°C and optimum temperature at 15°C. Spoilage flora describes
merely the bacteria present on the fish when it spoils and spoilage
bacteria is the specific group that produce the off-odours and off-
flavours associated with spoilage 32.
8 A bacterium on a piece of seafood will duplicate itself by dividing,
in less than 20 minutes under ideal growth conditions (food, water,
6 and proper temperature). Those two bacteria will divide in the
next 20 minutes, resulting in four bacteria 33. The rate of microbial
4 spoilage depends upon the number of micro-organisms present
on the fish and the temperature at which the fish is kept. Rate of
2 spoilage varies from fish to fish and can be listed as follows such
as fatty fish spoil faster than lean fish, small-sized fish spoil faster
than large fish of the same species, cold water fish spoil faster
0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 Days
than warm water fish, round fish spoil faster than flat fish 34.
Figure 3. The four phases of fish spoilage 29. Rigor mortis is the progressive stiffening of muscle shortly after

88 Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment, Vol.7 (3&4), July-October 2009

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