The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that mad cow disease could spread worldwide.

The Rome-based organisation said on Friday all countries that had imported cattle or meat and bone meal (MBM) from western Europe – especially Britain – since the 1980s, could be considered at risk. The crisis has spread to most countries in Europe, with Germany and Spain reporting their first cases of BSE last year, and Italy reported its first domestic case last week. The fear for most nations is the unknown factor of whether imports of beef or animal feed from European countries contain the BSE virus.

The Middle East, eastern Europe, North Africa and India were pinpointed as the highest risk by the FAO, and Governments worldwide must take steps to prevent the disease reaching humans throughout the world.

“There is an increasingly grave situation developing in the European Union, with BSE being identified in cattle in several member-states of the EU which have, until recently, been regarded as free from the disease,” said the FAO in a statement.

In the UK, more than 170,000 cattle have been diagnosed with BSE and about 1,300 more cases have been confirmed in Belgium, Denmark, France, the Republic of Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland.