Bovine faecal samples were collected during June-December 1997 at 14 major abattoirs slaughtering cattle in Finland. Escherichia coli O157 was isolated from 19 of the 1448 samples (1.31%) after enrichment and immunomagnetic separation (IMS). The positive faecal isolates originated from 16 farms and eight abattoirs. The occurrence of E. coli O157 was highest in July (8/204; 3.92%) and September (6/244; 2.46%). No E. coli O157 was detected in November and December, nor from the faecal samples from the northernmost region where cattle density is low. All of the isolates carried the eae gene and showed the enterohaemolytic phenotype. All except one were motile and had the flagella antigen H7. Seventeen of the isolates were positive for stx(2) gene and one carried both the stx(1) and stx(2) genes. Of the 17 isolates with stx genes, 16 were verocytotoxin-positive in a reversed passive latex agglutination test after polymyxin extraction but only eight without extraction. The isolates belonged to 10 different pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) patterns. The most common PFGE pattern (1.42) was detected in eight isolates (42.1%). Four PFGE patterns (1.1; 1.6; 1.12; 1.14) were identical with those isolated from humans in Finland, suggesting that at least some human E. coli O157 infections may be of bovine origin.