To undertake an assessment of survey participation and non-response error in a population-based study that examined the relationship between socio-economic position and food purchasing behaviour. The study was conducted in Brisbane City (Australia) in 2000. The sample was selected using a stratified two-stage cluster design. Respondents were recruited using a range of strategies that attempted to maximise the involvement of persons from disadvantaged backgrounds: respondents were contacted by personal visit and data were collected using home-based face-to-face interviews; multiple call-backs on different days and at different times were used; and a financial gratuity was provided. Non-institutionalised residents of private dwellings located in 50 small areas that differed in their socio-economic characteristics. Rates of survey participation - measured by non-contacts, exclusions, dropped cases, response rates and completions - were similar across areas, suggesting that residents of socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged areas were equally likely to be recruited. Individual-level analysis, however, showed that respondents and non-respondents differed significantly in their sociodemographic and food purchasing characteristics: non-respondents were older, less educated and exhibited different purchasing behaviours. Misclassification bias probably accounted for the inconsistent pattern of association between the area- and individual-level results. Estimates of bias due to non-response indicated that although respondents and non-respondents were qualitatively different, the magnitude of error associated with this differential was minimal. Socio-economic position measured at the individual level is a strong and consistent predictor of survey non-participation. Future studies that set out to examine the relationship between socio-economic position and diet need to adopt sampling strategies and data collection methods that maximise the likelihood of recruiting participants from all points on the socio-economic spectrum, and particularly persons from disadvantaged backgrounds. Study designs that are not sensitive to the difficulties associated with recruiting a socio-economically representative sample are likely to produce biased estimates (underestimates) of socio-economic differences in the dietary outcome being investigated.