Britain could have spread BSE to 69 countries by selling them meat-and-bone cattle meal knowing that it might have been contaminated with the disease.

Britain could have spread BSE to 69 countries by selling them meat-and-bone cattle meal knowing that it might have been contaminated with the disease.

The revelation, in previously unpublished Ministry of Agriculture documents, shows the extent of Britain's exports of the potentially contaminated material. Between 1988, when meat-and-bone meal (MBM) was banned in Britain and 1996, thousands of tons were sent to European nations such as the Netherlands, France and Germany. Israel imported more than 31,000 tons, and Russia more than 3,000 tons.

Large amounts were sent to developing countries, particularly after European countries banned British MBM feed. Indonesia imported 60,000 tons from Britain between 1991 and 1996 and Kenya imported 521 tons between 1987 and 1996. The figures include some poultry feed, which continued to be sold legally after 1996. Britain also exported more than three million live cows to 36 countries between 1988 and 1996.

The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation said that all countries which imported cattle MBM feed from Western Europe - especially Britain - since the 1980s could be at risk from the disease.

Until now, all known cases of BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, its brain-wasting human form, have been reported in Europe, mainly in Britain. But the disease is starting to emerge in other countries. A woman died of it in South Africa in December.

Some experts fear that the exports will lead to BSE epidemics in some of the poorest countries in the world. Stephen Dealler, a clinical microbiologist and BSE expert, said: "Exporting MBM feed that was potentially BSE-infected was like selling boxes of blank bullets containing a few live ones and saying it's not your problem if someone gets shot.

"We have only just managed to get control of BSE here and that is with a very tough regime. It is going to be much harder in African and Middle Eastern countries."

In the UK, more than 170,000 cattle have been diagnosed with BSE and about 1,300 on the Continent.

When the ban was imposed on domestic sales of the feed in 1988, companies turned to the EU market and when that too collapsed after bans, new markets were found in developing countries and other non-EU countries.

Phillip Whitehead, a Labour MEP who sat on the parliament's 1998 BSE inquiry, said no assessment has been made of the likelihood of BSE outbreaks in most non-EU countries that imported the British MBM feed. "It was an irresponsible action to continue to export MBM feed after we had banned it here," he added. "It was appalling that we continued to flog it abroad."

The government banned MBM cattle feed on 12 July 1988, just three months after government animal health experts had realised it was responsible for the rapid spread of BSE

Evidence provided to the British BSE inquiry headed by Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers showed that leading British officials in effect washed their hands of moral responsibility over the dangers of MBM feed spreading BSE to infection-free countries, leaving it to individual countries to decide whether to import British feed or prevent it being given to cattle.

Trade organisations say that some exported MBM feed was subject to high temperature treatment that would have destroyed BSE agents. The UK Renderers' Association, whose members were largely responsible for exports, agreed that such sales increased in the early 1990s. "But allegations of dumping, following plummeting prices, are completely untrue," it said.