Cattle arriving for slaughter at a large abattoir in northern Italy between April 1997 and January 1998 were examined for intestinal carriage of Verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC) O157 using an immunomagnetic separation technique. Sixty sorbitol non-fermenting VTEC O157 strains were isolated from 59 (13.1%) of the 450 cattle examined. In particular, VTEC O157 was found in 37 (16.6%) of 223 feedlot cattle and in 22 (16.1%) of 137 dairy cull cows, but not in the 90 veal calves sampled. The isolation rate was higher during warm weather (17.5%), falling to an average of 2.9% during the winter months. VT-negative, O157 latex-agglutinating E. coli strains were isolated from 23 (5.1%) of the 450 animals. PCR analysis showed that all 60 VTEC O157 strains carried the VT2 gene and that 25 strains also carried the VT1 gene. In addition, four of the VT-negative, O157 latex-agglutinating E. coli strains carried the VT2 gene. Atypical biochemical features were observed in some VTEC O157: two strains (3.3%) showed beta-glucuronidase activity, and seven (11.7%) produced urease.