During the decade to 1999, the incidence of human infections with the zoonotic pathogen verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli O157 (VTEC O157) increased in England and Wales. This paper describes the results of a survey of 75 farms to determine the prevalence of faecal excretion of VTEC O157 by cattle, its primary reservoir host, in England and Wales. Faecal samples were collected from 4663 cattle between June and December 1999. The prevalence of excretion by individual cattle was 4-2 per cent (95 per cent confidence interval [CI] 2.0 to 6.4) and 10.3 per cent (95 per cent CI 5.8 to 14.8) among animals in infected herds. The within-herd prevalence on positive farms ranged from 1.1 to 51.4 per cent. At least one positive animal was identified on 29 (38.7 per cent; 95 per cent CI 28.1 to 50.4) of the farms, including dairy, suckler and fattening herds. The prevalence of excretion was least in the calves under two months of age, peaked in the calves aged between two and six months and declined thereafter. The phage types identified most widely were 4, 34 and 2, which were each found on six of the 29 positive farms.