The high mortality rate associated with human infections caused by Escherichia coli strains of the serotype O157:H7 has brought to public attention the importance of ruminants as reservoirs of food-borne pathogens. In addition to established examples such as salmonella, campylobacter and listeria, recent evidence is emerging of the role of food in the transmission of Helicobacter pylori and Mycobacterium paratuberculosis. Food-borne pathogens harboured by ruminants are spread through shedding in the faeces and subsequent faecal contamination of raw food. Ruminant shedding appears to be affected by diet and, of particular concern, may be increased during fasting regimens imposed during transport to the slaughterhouse. The survival of food-borne pathogens in the ruminant gut is affected by many factors including microbe–microbe interactions, interactions involving plant metabolites and the presence of inhibitory end-product metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids. The potential importance of digesta flow and bacterial detachment in shedding of food-borne pathogens is discussed. Experimental procedures with dangerous pathogens have constraints, particularly in animal experimentation. This situation may be overcome by the use of rumen-simulating fermentors. One such system which, like the natural rumen, has a different turnover rate for solid and liquid digesta, was found to maintain rumen-like variables over an 11 d period. This system may prove useful for the study of dietary effects on food-borne pathogens.