An epidemiological study was carried out to determine the incidence and the serotypes of verotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) that cause infections in Galicia (north-western Spain). Although, VTEC strains were isolated from 55 (14%) of the 387 calves sampled and the majority of bovine VTEC strains belonged to serotypes (026:H11 or H-, 091:H21, O103:H2, 0105:H18, O111:H-O113:H21, O126:H-, O128:H- and O157:H7 or H-) previously associated with human haemorrhagic colitis (HC) and haemolytic uraemic syndrome (HUS) in other countries, VTEC are not a common cause of human infections in Spain. Thus, VTEC (O26:H11 and O86:H10) were isolated from only 3 (0.6%) of the 482 children with diarrhoea investigated. We examined the 69 (3 humans and 66 bovines) VTEC strains that were initially isolated as E. coli producing a toxin cytotoxic to Vero and HeLa cells by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) using specific primers for VT1, VT2 and eae genes. PCR showed that 38 (55%) of VTEC strains carried VT1 genes. 18 (26%) possessed VT2 genes, and 10 (14%) carried both VT1 and VT2 genes. Three (one human and two bovine) strains which were formerly VTEC had lost the ability to produce verotoxins upon subculture and became negative for VT1 and VT2 by PCR. In total 35 (51%) of 69 VTEC strains, including the two human VT1+ strains of serotype O26:H11, were positive for eae sequences when tested by PCR. Presence of the eae gene was significantly more frequent (100%; 21/21) among VTEC strains with serotypes (O26:H11, O111:H-, O157:H-and O157:H7) considered as enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) than among VTEC strains with non-EHEC serotypes (29%; 14/48) (p < 0.001). Results obtained in this study indicate that cattle may be an important source of VTEC involved in human disease. However, severe clinical syndromes caused by VTEC, such as HC and HUS, are uncommon in Spain, in comparison with North America and the UK. In any case, VTEC disease can appear on the scene very suddenly, as occurred in the UK and North America in the 1980s.