updated 10/3/2008 1:17:00 PM ET 2008-10-03T17:17:00

Eating a tiny bit of a melamine, the chemical responsible for a global food safety scare, is not harmful except when it is in baby formula, U.S. food safety officials said Friday.

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Melamine-tainted formula has sickened more than 54,000 children in China and is being blamed for the deaths of at least four tots. The chemical has also turned up in products sold across Asia, ranging from candies, to chocolates, to coffee drinks, that used dairy ingredients from China. Authorities in California and Connecticut have found melamine in White Rabbit candies imported from China.

But infant formula made in the U.S. is safe, because manufacturers do not use any ingredients from China.

The Food and Drug Administration said Friday its safety experts have concluded that eating a very tiny amount of melamine — 2.5 parts per million — would not raise health concerns, even if a person ate food that was tainted with the chemical every day.

But officials stressed the scientific assessment does not mean that U.S. authorities will tolerate any melamine that is deliberately added to foods. In China, unscrupulous suppliers appear to have been adding melamine to make watered-down milk seem protein-rich in quality-control tests. That's because melamine is high in nitrogen, as is protein.

"If products are adulterated because they contain melamine, (authorities) will take appropriate actions to prevent the products from entering commerce," the FDA said in a statement. The agency said it was setting the 2.5 parts-per-million standard to address situations in which the chemical accidentally comes into contact with food, such as in cases where it is used for industrial purposes in a factory that makes food products.

Keep chemical out of U.S. formula
Officials also stressed that infant formula sold to U.S. consumers must be completely free of melamine.

"There is too much uncertainty to set a level in infant formula and rule out any public health concern," the FDA said.

Melamine first came to the attention of U.S. consumers last year, when it touched off a massive pet food recall. Chinese suppliers of bulk pet food ingredients were found to have been adding the chemical to artificially boost the protein readings of their products. Thousands of pets here were sickened, and hundreds are believed to have died.

Melamine is harmful to the kidneys. It can cause kidney stones as the body tries to eliminate it, and in extreme cases, life-threatening kidney failure.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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