BEIJING (AP)- China said Thursday it has banned melamine from food products after the chemical was found in exports of vegetable protein shipped to the United States, but rejected it as the cause of dozens of pet deaths in North America.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials say they suspect the substance, which is a chemical found in plastics and pesticides, is to blame.
China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement there was no evidence to support the FDA's claim but that it would cooperate with the U.S. to find out what actually killed the animals.
The comments in a statement released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry were the first detailed response from Beijing to concerns that emerged a month ago about the country's wheat and rice gluten exports.
China has said it was investigating the issue but had not acknowledged until Thursday that Chinese companies had shipped gluten tainted with melamine to the U.S.
The ministry said the contaminated vegetable protein managed to get past customs without inspection because it had not been declared for use in pet food.
''At present, there is no clear evidence showing that melamine is the direct cause of the poisoning or death of the pets,'' the statement said. ''China is willing to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. side ... to find out the real cause leading to the pet deaths in order to protect the health of the pets of the two countries.''
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have said they suspect Chinese wheat and rice gluten laced with melamine and added to pet food may have killed at least 15 cats and dogs. The chemical appears to have caused acute kidney failure in animals that have died or been sickened after eating foods contaminated with the chemical.
China said an investigation triggered by FDA complaints found melamine in wheat and rice gluten exported to the U.S. by two Chinese companies: Xuzhou Anying Bio-technology Development Co. and Binzhou Futian Bio-technology Co.
The case has prompted China to step up inspections of plant-based proteins and to list melamine as a banned substance for food exports and domestic sales, it said.
China also invited FDA officials to visit China to help with further investigations into the case and to consult on improving inspection techniques, it said.