A multiplex PCR assay including sample preparation was developed to detect viable pathogenic strains of Yersinia enterocolitica in PCR-inhibitory samples, such as pork and enrichment media. The method developed was used to simultaneously detect the plasmid-borne virulence gene yadA and a Yersinia-specific region of the 16S rRNA gene. According to an auto-agglutination test for virulence-plasmid-bearing strains of Y. enterocolitica, all potential pathogenic strains tested were detected by the assay. A DNA extraction procedure, an aqueous two-phase system composed of polyethylene glycol 4000 and dextran 40 and a buoyant density centrifugation method, based on Percoll, were compared with regard to their efficiency in separating Yersinia enterocolitica from PCR inhibitors originating from enrichment media and pork. Using the density gradient centrifugation method resulted in a detection level of 4.0 x 10(2) CFU Y. enterocolitica per ml enrichment media. To ensure detection of viable bacteria a short enrichment step was included in the sample preparation together with the density gradient centrifugation. When this sample treatment method was evaluated with a selective enrichment medium together with a background flora inoculated with approximately 1.0 x 10(1) CFU per ml of Y. enterocolitica and incubated at 25 degrees C, a positive PCR result was obtained after 6 to 8 h. Our results indicate that selective enrichment followed by buoyant density gradient centrifugation provides a convenient and user-friendly sample preparation method prior to PCR.