This study determined the prevalence of the eaeA gene and its relationship to serotype and type of verotoxin produced in a collection of 432 verotoxigenic Escherichia coli (VTEC) obtained from the faeces of healthy cows and calves in a systematic random survey involving 80 dairy farms in Southwest Ontario. A PCR amplification procedure involving primer pairs which target the conserved central region of the O157:H7 eaeA. gene showed that 151 (35·2%) strains were positive for the eaeA gene. All isolates (9–21 for each O group) of O groups 5, 26, 69, 84, 103, 111, 145 and 157 were positive, whereas all isolates (7–34 for each O group) of O groups 113, 132, and 153 and serotype O156:NM (38 isolates) were negative for eaeA. Seventy-three percent of 130 isolates of eaeA-positive serotypes produced VT1 only compared with 20% of 253 isolates of eaeA-negative serotypes. We conclude that there is a strong association between certain O groups and the eaeA gene, that serotypes of eaeA-positive and eaeA-negative VTEC implicated in human and cattle disease are present at high frequency in the faeces of healthy cattle, that VT1 is more frequently associated with eaeA-positive than with eaeA-negative serogroups, and that the eaeA gene is more frequently found in VTEC from calves compared with VTEC from adult cattle.