The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) said on Wednesday it had lowered to the safest level the official risk of six countries for mad cow disease, a move expected to open international market access for their beef exports.

These countries are France, Ireland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and the Lichtenstein.

OIE members in Paris eased their status on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to "negligible risk" from "controlled risk".

One of the OIE criteria to be categorised as a negligible BSE risk country is to demonstrate that the last infected native animal was born more than 11 years ago, it said.

"The main advantage will be at international trade level because many countries insist on limiting trade exchange to countries that have the same risk status," Karin Schwabenbauer, head the OIE Council and World Assembly, told reporters.

France welcomed the decision, noting that the BSE epidemic that spread from Britain to mainland Europe in the 1980s because of contaminated meal had prompted consumer distrust and trade restrictions.

"I appeal to countries that still have an embargo on exports of this sector to lift it very quickly," French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said in a statement.

Thirteen countries ban French beef and beef products because of BSE - Brazil, China, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, South Africa, Botswana, Mali, Uganda, South Korea, Iraq, Syria and Qatar - a Farm Ministry spokesman said. Japan, Vietnam and Singapore ban meat from cattle older than 30 months.

Ireland earlier this year signed export deals with China and the United States, making it the only European country to be allowed to export beef to both countries.