The histological status of the thymus, blood cortisol concentration and circulating neutrophil:lymphocyte ratio were evaluated in 349 slaughtered beef cattle, to assess the potential of these parameters as indirect biomarkers of the illegal use of corticosteroids in meat production. The livers of 20 of the animals were analysed chemically for residues of corticosteroids. The morphology of the thymus was examined for adipose tissue infiltration, cortical atrophy and ‘starry sky’ appearance, and on the basis of these characteristics, the animals were considered to be negative, suspected or positive for illegal corticosteroid treatment. The animals considered to be negative had a mean cortisol concentration that was significantly higher (29 ng/ml) than that of the animals suspected for corticosteroid treatment (22 ng/ml). Using the chemical analysis as the gold standard for identifying illegally treated animals, the histological examination of the thymus had a sensitivity of 100 per cent and a specificity of 85 per cent. The samples that were positive by chemical analysis had cortisol concentrations of less than 2·0 ng/ml, whereas the mean cortisol concentration of the negative samples was 10·3 ng/ml.