France has found a suspected case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in the northeastern region of Ardennes, the farm ministry said on Tuesday.

If confirmed, it would be the first case of BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease, in France since 2004. That could hit beef exports at a time when livestock farmers are already struggling.

Samples of the five-year old cow were sent to a reference laboratory in Britain and test results were expected within eight to 10 days, a ministry official said.

A new BSE case would likely change France's official BSE risk level, assigned by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). France regained the safest level, "negligible risk", last year as it could demonstrate that the last infected native animal was born more than 11 years before.

Several countries including South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Singapore lifted embargos on French beef following the OIE decision.

France's livestock sector is currently facing a severe crisis, drawing protests from farmers and prompting national and European Union aid schemes.

The pork and milk sectors are the worst hit, as they are more vulnerable to a Russian embargo and a drop in Chinese demand, but cattle farmers also complain of difficult market conditions due to low prices.