Enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli harbours a pathogenicity island encoding a type 3 secretion system used to translocate effector proteins into the cytosol of intestinal epithelial cells and subvert their function. The structural proteins of the translocon are encoded in a major espADB mRNA processed from a precursor. The translocon mRNA should be highly susceptible to RNase E cleavage because of its AU-rich leader region and monophosphorylated 5′-terminus, yet it manages to avoid rapid degradation. Here, we report that the espADB leader region contains a strong Shine–Dalgarno element (SD2) and a translatable mini-ORF of six codons. Disruption of SD2 so as to weaken ribosome binding significantly reduces the concentration and stability of esp mRNA, whereas codon substitutions that impair translation of the mini-ORF have no such effect. These findings suggest that occupancy of SD2 by ribosomes, but not mini-ORF translation, helps to protect espADB mRNA from degradation, likely by hindering RNase E access to the AU-rich leader region.