The requirement for real-time monitoring in the modern and highly automated food processing environment has stimulated research into rapid microbiological testing. This review will concentrate on the search for a rapid detection system for the microbial spoilage of meats that has been ongoing since at least the 1970s. The metabolic processes and bacteria involved within the microbial spoilage of muscle foods will be outlined prior to a detailed overview of the current methods employed in the industry to quantify levels of spoilage organisms. Despite these detailed microbiological studies there is still a requirement within the food industry for new techniques which would ideally be accurate, non-destructive and give answers in real-time and a range of novel analytical technologies which are currently being developed for the rapid assessment of microbial spoilage in muscle foods will be examined. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.