A study was carried out to determine if three strains of Escherichia coli O157:H7 grown (18 h) in Tryptic Soy Broth (TSB) and TSB supplemented with 1·25% glucose (TSBG), i.e. unadapted and acid-adapted cells, respectively, exhibited changes in tolerance to reduced pH when plated on Tryptic Soy Agar (TSA) acidified (pH 3·9, 4·2, 4·5, 4·8, 5·1 and 5·4) with acetic, citric or malic acids. All test strains grew well on TSA acidified with acetic acid at pH ≥ 5·4 or malic acid at pH ≥ 4·5; two strains grew on TSA acidified with citric acid at pH ≥ 4·5, while the third strain grew at pH ≥ 4·8. Acid-adapted and control (unadapted) cells differed little in their ability to form visible colonies on TSA containing the same acid at the same pH. However, on plates not showing visible colonies, acid-adapted cells retained higher viability than unadapted cells when plated on acidified TSA. Growth of acid-adapted and control cells of E. coli O157:H7 inoculated into TSB containing acetic acid (pH 5·4 and 5·7) and citric or malic acids (pH 4·2 and 4·5) was also studied. There was essentially no difference in growth characteristics of the two types of cells in TSB acidified at the same pH with a given acid. Tolerance of acid-adapted and control cells on subsequent exposure to low pH is influenced by the type of acidulant. The order of sensitivity at a given pH is acetic > citric > malic acid. When performing acid challenge studies to determine survival and growth characteristics of E. coli O157:H7 in foods, consideration should be given to the type of acid to which cells have been exposed previously, the procedure used to achieve acidic environments and possible differences in response among strains. The use of strains less affected by pH than type of acidulant or vice versa could result in an underestimation of the potential for survival and growth of E. coli O157:H7 in acid foods.