The bovine milk fat globule membrane (MFGM) contains several antimicrobial components with proven efficacy in vitro, but in vivo evidence is scarce. The present study was performed to determine the efficacy of the bovine MFGM in vivo. Rats were fed diets based on bovine skimmed milk powder (low in MFGM) or bovine sweet buttermilk powder (high in MFGM). After dietary adaptation, rats were orally infected with Salmonella enteritidis or Listeria monocytogenes. Whereas sweet buttermilk powder did not protect rats against infection with S. enteritidis, it protected against L. monocytogenes, as shown by a lower colonisation and translocation of this pathogen. Protection coincided with higher listericidal capacity of gastric and caecal contents. The digestion products of phosphoglycerides and sphingomyelin are bactericidal in vitro. To study their role, rats were fed diets containing either 0·1 % phosphatidylcholine or sphingomyelin, or a control diet. After dietary adaptation, rats were infected with L. monocytogenes. Since Listeria colonisation was not affected by these diets, phosphoglycerides and sphingomyelin are not involved in the protective effect of sweet buttermilk. Additional in vitro experiments were performed to further explore the mechanism of the beneficial effects of sweet buttermilk. Inhibition of the adherence of L. monocytogenes to the intestinal mucosa is the most likely explanation, since sweet buttermilk powder inhibited the binding of L. monocytogenes in both a haemagglutination assay and a Caco-2 cell adherence assay. In conclusion, sweet buttermilk powder, which is rich in MFGM, protects against L. monocytogenes infection in rats, probably by preventing adherence of this pathogen to the intestinal mucosa.