Selection indices to improve the efficiency of lean meat production in cattle were derived with an aggregate breeding value which comprised growth rate, food conversion efficiency, killing-out proportion and carcass lean proportion. Index measurements were growth rate, food conversion efficiency and ultrasonic fat area. Relative economic values of traits in the aggregate breeding value were calculated for an 18/20-month beef system, assuming a fixed national output of lean meat. Literature estimates of phenotypic and genetic parameters were used. Two indices were derived, one with a complete restriction on genetic changes in birth weight, and the other without restriction. Correlations between the index and the aggregate breeding value were 0·53 for the restricted index, and 0·57 for the unrestricted index. The maximum proportional reduction in expected economic response, due to complete restriction of birth weight was about 0·08. Selection on either index would actually lead to a slight decrease in carcass lean proportion, but this was less than the decrease expected from selection solely on growth rate. Correlations between the indices and the aggregate breeding value (measuring the accuracy of selection) fell by only about 0·01 when ultrasonic measurements were omitted from the index, but fell by about 0·09 when food conversion efficiency was omitted. Sensitivity of the indices to changes in parameters was also examined. With proportional changes of ±0·5 in individual economic weights, or absolute changes of ±0·2 in genetic correlations or −0·2 in heritabilities, the efficiency of selection ranged from 0·93 to 1·00.