BACKGROUND: The impact of food animals as a possible reservoir for extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) producing Enterobacteriaceae, and the dissemination of such strains into the food production chain need to be assessed. In this study 334 fecal samples from pigs, cattle, chicken and sheep were investigated at slaughter. Additionally, 100 raw milk samples, representing bulk tank milk of 100 different dairy farms, 104 minced meat (pork and beef) samples and 67 E. coli isolates from cattle E. coli mastitis were analyzed. RESULTS: As many as 15.3% of the porcine, 13.7% of the bovine, 8.6% of the sheep and 63.4% of the chicken fecal samples yielded ESBL producers after an enrichment step. In contrast, none of the minced meat, none of the bulk tank milk samples and only one of the mastitis milk samples contained ESBL producing strains. Of the total of 91 isolates, 89 were E. coli, one was Citrobacter youngae and one was Enterobacter cloacae. PCR analysis revealed that 78 isolates (85.7%) produced CTX-M group 1 ESBLs while six isolates (6.6%) produced CTX-M group 9 enzymes. Five detected ESBLs (5.5%) belonged to the SHV group and 2 isolates (2.2%) contained a TEM-type enzyme. A total of 27 CTX-M producers were additionally PCR-positive for TEM-beta-lactamase. The ESBL-encoding genes of 53 isolates were sequenced of which 34 produced CTX-M-1, 6 produced CTX-M-14, 5 produced CTX-M-15 and also 5 produced SHV-12. Two isolates produced TEM-52 and one isolate expressed a novel CTX-M group 1 ESBL, CTX-M-117. One isolate--aside from a CTX-M ESBL-- contained an additional novel TEM-type broad-spectrum beta-lactamase, TEM-186. CONCLUSIONS: The relatively high rates of ESBL producers in food animals and the high genetic diversity among these isolates are worrisome and indicate an established reservoir in farm animals.