High pH has been shown to rapidly destroy gram-negative food-borne pathogens; however, the mechanism of destruction has not yet been elucidated. Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella enteritidis ATCC 13706, and Listeria monocytogenes F5069 were suspended in NaHCO3-NaOH buffer solutions at pH 9, 10, 11, or 12 to give a final cell concentration of approximately 5.2 x 10(8) CFU/ml and then held at 37 or 45 degrees C. At 0, 5, 10, and 15 min the suspensions were sterilely filtered and each filtrate was analyzed for material with A260. Viability of the cell suspensions was evaluated by enumeration on nonselective and selective agars. Cell morphology was evaluated by scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy. A260 increased dramatically with pH and temperature for both E. coli and S. enteritidis; however, with L. monocytogenes material with A260 was not detected at any of the pHs tested. At pH 12, numbers of E. coli and S. enteritidis decreased at least 8 logs within 15 s, whereas L. monocytogenes decreased by only 1 log in 10 min. There was a very strong correlation between the initial rate of release of material with A260 and death rate of the gram-negative pathogens (r = 0.997). At pH 12, gram-negative test cells appeared collapsed and showed evidence of lysis while gram-positive L. monocytogenes did not, when observed by scanning and transmission electron microscopy. It was concluded that destruction of gram-negative food-borne pathogens by high pH involves disruption of the cytoplasmic membrane.