Blood donor screening for antibody to hepatitis B core antigen (anti-HBc) implemented in some countries as a surrogate marker for non-A, non-B hepatitis has been superseded by anti-HCV screening. To assess the value of anti-HBc screening for the detection of hepatitis B surface antigen-negative blood donations that might contain infectious HBV, HBV genomic detection and recipient testing were used. Blood donations were screened and confirmed by multiple anti-HBc assays. Donations containing isolated anti-HBc and those with anti-hepatitis B surface antigen (anti-HBs) level < 0.1 IU/ml were tested for the presence of HBV DNA. Recipients of previous donations from the corresponding donors during the previous 5 years were traced and tested for markers of HBV infection. Of 103 869 donations screened, 586 (0.56%) were anti-HBc positive, two of which contained HBsAg, and 413 (0.4%) had protective (>/= 0.1 IU/ml) levels of anti-HBs. Anti-HBs < 0.1 IU/ml was found in 102 of these donations (0.1%) and isolated anti-HBc in 69 (0.07%). No donations with isolated anti-HBc were HBV DNA confirmed positive. Of 278 recipients of previous donations from 171 donors at risk of HBV carriage, 12 had markers of HBV infection. Six recipients had other identified risk factors. An association with blood transfusion was considered probable in two and possible in four recipients. None of the six corresponding donors had detectable HBV DNA 6-40 months after the implicated donation. The frequency of HBV transmission by chronic carriers negative for hepatitis B surface antigen was estimated in this study to be 1 in 52,000 donations (CI 0.3-7.8/100,000) from HBsAg-negative donors. Such HBV infectious donations may not be detected by DNA amplification.