Most major food-related outbreaks of listeriosis have been traced to a cluster of genetically related strains of serovar 4b (epidemic clone). In spite of numerous searches, distinct bacteriologic or virulence-related features unique to these strains have eluded identification, although a restriction fragment length polymorphism (RFLP) characteristic of the epidemic clone has previously been described (W. Zheng and S. Kathariou, Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 61:4310-4314, 1995). We found that DNAs from 75 strains which were derived from three separate outbreaks and which had the epidemic clone-specific RFLP were also invariably resistant to digestion by Sau3AI and other restriction endonucleases sensitive to cytosine methylation at 5' GATC 3' sites. This modification of Sau3AI restriction was host mediated, as it did not persist when DNA was cloned and propagated in Escherichia coli, and was uncommon among other Listeria strains. Epidemic-associated strains with this modification were resistant to infection by phage propagated in a serotype 4b strain which was not known to be involved in an epidemic and which lacked the epidemic clone-specific RFLP. Screening for susceptibility to MboI digestion revealed that these epidemic strains lacked methylation of adenines at GATC sites. This type of modification was rare among Listeria strains and was found in only three (of eight screened) strains of serovar 1/2b, possibly representing one clonal lineage.