The presence of lactose-utilizing Lactococcus species in nondairy environments was studied by using identification methods based on PCR amplification and (sub)species-specific probes derived from 16S rRNA sequences. Environmental isolates from samples taken on cattle farms and in the waste flow of a cheese production plant were first identified to the genus level, using a Lactococcus genus-specific probe. Isolates which showed a positive signal with this probe were further identified to the (sub)species level. Lactococcus lactis isolates were also characterized at the phenotypic level for the ability to hydrolyze arginine, to ferment citrate, and to produce proteases and bacteriocins. With specific PCR amplifications, the presence of sequences related to citP, coding for citrate permease; prtP, coding for protease; and nisA or nisZ, the structural genes for production of nisin A or nisin Z, respectively, was verified. By these methods, it was possible to isolate lactococci from various environmental sources, such as soil, effluent water, and the skin of cattle. The strains of L. lactis isolated differed in a number of properties, such as the ability to hydrolyze arginine or the absence of citP-related sequences, from those found in industrial starter cultures. The results indicate that the majority of the industrially produced lactococci do not survive outside the dairy environment, although natural niches are available. However, from those niches strains with the potential to be developed into novel starter cultures may be isolated.