Abstract Production of viable but non-culturable (VNC) Campylobacter jejunicells was studied using 36 strains resuspended in microcosm water. Cells in stationary phase were resuspended at 4°C, with gentle stirring at 100 r min −1, in filtered surface water adjusted to pH 6.050. The culturability of starved cell suspensions was determined by spread plate counts, and the activity of cells by the direct viable count technique and CTC–DAPI double staining. Although most C. jejunistrains died within a few days of suspension in microcosm water, three strains (Bf, 79 and 85) demonstrated a complete decrease of culturability within 15 days of suspension. A constant activity level was found in these three strains, even after 30 days of starvation in microcosm water; and an almost constant concomitant level of adenosine triphosphate was measured in VNC cell suspensions. Scanning electron microscopy of C. jejuniVNC cells showed that the spiral-shaped cells of strain 85 cultures became coccoid in ageing microcosm-water cell suspensions, whereas most VNC cells of strains Bf and 79 remained spiral-shaped after 30 days of starvation.