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China accused of pets deaths

China accused of exporting tainted wheat gluten used in pet food and being linked to deaths of cats and dogs in United States said Friday it has investigated the allegations.

It was the first time Chinese authorities have officially responded to the uproar in America that has resulted in a ban on gluten imports from Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. and a recall of nearly 100 brands of pet food.

"We are investigating this," said Zeng Xing, an official with the press office of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. The administration monitors the export of food, animals and farm products.

Zeng refused to give any other details but confirmed that China was looking into the claim that the exported wheat gluten contained melamine, a chemical found in plastics and pesticides.

Chinese veterinarians and animal rights activists said they were not aware of any reports of deaths in the country due to tainted pet food.

It is the first recent high-profile incident of a contaminated product being exported from China. In domestic cases - such as one involving drug regulators who took bribes to approve shoddy drugs -  the government has stepped in and promised investigations.

According to state regulations, exported food should be inspected by Zeng's administration for poisonous substances. Customs will only let the product through if a certificate of quality supervision is provided.

It wasn't immediately clear if the procedures had been followed in the case of the wheat gluten.

Las Vegas-based ChemNutra Inc., which imported the product and shipped it to companies that make pet food, said this week that Xuzhou Anying had never reported the presence of melamine in the content analysis it provided.

Mao Lijun, general manager of Xuzhou Anying, on Friday would only say that the allegations were "under investigation."

Chemical scares and mass poisonings are common in China, which has been struggling to improve its dismal food-safety record, but manufacturers often mislabel food products or add illegal substances to them. Cooks routinely disregard hygiene rules or mistakenly use industrial chemicals instead of salt and other ingredients.

Last year, seven companies were punished for using banned Sudan dye to color egg yolks red. The industrial dye, used for leather, floor polish and other household chemicals, has been found in various products sold in China, such as roasted meat, chili powder and lipstick.

In 2004, at least 12 infants died from malnutrition after drinking formula with little or no nutritional value in eastern China's Anhui province.

Zeng, the Chinese official, said a report posted in her administration's official newspaper earlier this week led some to believe China denied exporting any wheat gluten to the United States. She said that the administration meant that it had never exported any wheat gluten containing a rat poison, aminopterin.

The New York State Food Laboratory last month identified aminopterin as the likely culprit in the pet food, a finding the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later rejected.

So far, the FDA has confirmed about 15 pet deaths, while anecdotal reports suggest hundreds of cats and dogs may have died of kidney failure from the tainted food.

The agency identified Xuzhou Anying as the supplier of the tainted gluten and last week blocked imports from the company, which says it produces and exports more than 10,000 tons of wheat gluten a year.

Only 873 tons have been linked to the contaminated U.S. pet food, raising the possibility that more of the bad product could still be in China or the United States, which Xuzhou Anying has said is its only foreign market.

Mary Peng, a manager of the International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing, said she's been receiving four to five queries a day from worried pet owners in China asking which food brands are safe. However, there have been no reports of animals sickened by pet food.

"We have not had any reports so far of any animals sickened with these particular symptoms," Peng said. "It's very much a public health issue. This should be something that needs to be addressed."

A manager in charge of purchasing from Paiduge Pet Food Company in Beijing said she had not heard of any cases of pet poisoning.

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