Twenty-four crossbred wethers (live weight 27·6 (s.e. 0·36) kg) were divided into three groups and given a concentrate diet. One group was a control, one was given cimaterol (10 mg/kg diet) and one was given clenbuterol (2 mg/kg diet). After 49 days on treatment the animals were fasted for 48 h and slaughtered at a live weight of about 36 kg. The effects of both beta-agonists were similar. Food conversion was proportionately 0·20 better in treated sheep which also produced heavier (18·3 v. 17·0 kg, P < 0·01) carcasses that were leaner. The cross-sectional area of the m. longissimus was increased proportionately by about 0·25 (P < 0·001) and the thickness of subcutaneous fat over the muscle reduced by 0·37 (P < 0·01). The loin joint from treated animals contained proportionately 0·30 more muscle (P < 0·001) and 016 (F > 0·01) less fat. Muscles from treated sheep had higher pHu values (P < 0·01) which resulted in reduced loss of exudate during storage (P < 0·01) and darker colour (P < 0·05). They also contained only about half as much intramuscular fat (13 v. 27 mg/g, P < 0·001) and less haem pigments (2·4 v. 3·9 mg/g, P < 0·001). The results indicate that beta-agonists substantially improve carcass quality but, under certain conditions of pre-slaughter handling, may reduce lean meat quality. The similarity of response to both beta-agonists suggests the observed effects on meat quality may be common to this class of drug.