In vitro studies have demonstrated antibacterial activity of essential oils (EOs) against Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella typhimurium, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Shigella dysenteria, Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus at levels between 0.2 and 10 microl ml(-1). Gram-negative organisms are slightly less susceptible than gram-positive bacteria. A number of EO components has been identified as effective antibacterials, e.g. carvacrol, thymol, eugenol, perillaldehyde, cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid, having minimum inhibitory concentrations (MICs) of 0.05-5 microl ml(-1) in vitro. A higher concentration is needed to achieve the same effect in foods. Studies with fresh meat, meat products, fish, milk, dairy products, vegetables, fruit and cooked rice have shown that the concentration needed to achieve a significant antibacterial effect is around 0.5-20 microl g(-1) in foods and about 0.1-10 microl ml(-1) in solutions for washing fruit and vegetables. EOs comprise a large number of components and it is likely that their mode of action involves several targets in the bacterial cell. The hydrophobicity of EOs enables them to partition in the lipids of the cell membrane and mitochondria, rendering them permeable and leading to leakage of cell contents. Physical conditions that improve the action of EOs are low pH, low temperature and low oxygen levels. Synergism has been observed between carvacrol and its precursor p-cymene and between cinnamaldehyde and eugenol. Synergy between EO components and mild preservation methods has also been observed. Some EO components are legally registered flavourings in the EU and the USA. Undesirable organoleptic effects can be limited by careful selection of EOs according to the type of food.