A rapid, sensitive and selective method has been developed for the direct determination of ethephon residues in vegetables (apple, cherry and tomato). Given the anionic character of ethephon, the use of ion-pairing liquid chromatography (LC) in combination with tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS, triple quadrupole) allowed its direct determination in these matrices avoiding a derivatisation step and favouring the automation of the method. Samples were extracted with a mixture of dichloromethane/aqueous formic acid (pH 3) (1:1). Then, tetrabutylammonium acetate (TBA) was added as an ion-pairing reagent, and an aliquot of the aqueous extract was directly injected into the LC/MS/MS system. Quantification was performed with matrix-matched standards prepared from blank sample extracts. MS/MS measurements were made in the selected reaction monitoring (SRM) mode, using the most sensitive transition (m/z 107 > 79) for quantification, and up to four additional transitions for confirmation. Quantitative recoveries were obtained for all matrices (between 83% and 96%) at two concentration levels tested (0.05 and 0.5 mg/kg), with relative standard deviations lower than 9% in all cases. The addition of TBA directly into the sample extract contained in the injection vial was found sufficient to obtain satisfactory LC retention for the analyte. Under these conditions, the absence of ion-pairing reagent in the mobile phase minimised the ionisation suppression for ethephon in the MS source, leading to an increase in the sensitivity of the method and reaching limits of detection of 0.02 mg/kg for all matrices investigated. The acquisition of five specific MS/MS transitions for ethephon allowed the simultaneous and reliable quantification and confirmation of the analyte in the samples. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.