A survey was conducted at five UK abattoirs to trace the source of dirty beef cattle and identify factors in the production chain that contributed to their dirtiness. The Meat Hygiene Service Clean Livestock score categories were used and the animals' histories were traced back to their farm of origin. Comprehensive information was collected relating to the farm, transport and lairage phases for 675 cattle from 85 batches. The mean score of the animals on arrival at the abattoir was 1.57, with 2.8 per cent in categories 3 and 4, and none in category 5. Regression analysis, blocking the data by farm of origin, revealed that age, feed type, coat length, clipping, journey distance and time, and abattoir were the six principal factors that affected the scores. Cattle under 20 months of age were cleaner than older cattle. Dry diets resulted in lower scores than wet diets. ‘Shorthair’ cattle were cleaner than ‘medium’ or ‘longhair’ cattle, and cattle which had been clipped were cleaner than unclipped animals. The cattle which had travelled over 150 miles (15 per cent) were dirtier than the others. Within each abattoir there were variations in score between 1 and 4, and the mean scores of the five abattoirs ranged from 1.19 to 1.76. A significant part of this variation could only be accounted for by unmeasured variables such as abattoir management practice, assessors' categorisations and climate.