The Jewish population has an increased frequency of inflammatory bowel disease compared with their non-Jewish neighbours. Genetic factors have been implicated in the aetiology of this disorder and may contribute to ethnic differences. This study determined the familial empirical risks for inflammatory bowel disease in the first degree relatives of inflammatory bowel disease probands (for both Jews and non-Jews) for the purpose of accurate genetic counselling and genetic analysis. A total of 527 inflammatory bowel disease patients from Southern California (291 Jews and 236 non-Jews) were questioned about inflammatory bowel disease in their first degree relatives (a total of 2493 individuals). Since inflammatory bowel disease has a variable and late age of onset, age specific incidence data were used to estimate the life time risks and to make valid comparisons between the different groups. In the first degree relatives of non-Jewish probands, the life time risks for inflammatory bowel disease were 5.2% and 1.6% when probands had Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis respectively. These values were consistently lower than the corresponding risks for relatives of Jewish patients -7.8% and 4.5% for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis probands respectively (p value for comparison between Jews and non-Jews: 0.028; between ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease: 0.005). These data provide the requisite basis for genetic counselling for these disorders in the white American population. In addition, these different empirical risks for relatives of Jewish and non-Jewish probands allow rejection of single Mendelian gene models for inflammatory bowel disease, but are consistent with several alternative genetic models.