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China appeals for sense over banana virus rumour

BEIJING, May 24 (Reuters) - China dismissed a rumour on Thursday that bananas grown on a southern island might contain viruses similar to SARS, the latest and most improbable in a series of food-safety scares to hit the country.

"It is purely a rumour and it is impossible for bananas to contain SARS-like viruses," the Agriculture Ministry said, referring to text messages some cell phone users had received.

"The spreaders of the false information either have inadequate relevant scientific knowledge or have ulterior motives," it said, adding police had been asked to investigate.

The rumour comes at a time when food products from China have come under scrutiny around the world after a spate of safety breaches involving toxins in products from pet food to toothpaste.

U.S. health officials are beginning to check all shipments of toothpaste coming from China, following reports of tainted products in the Dominican Republic and Panama.

The rumour about bananas from the sub-tropical island of Hainan had no scientific support as there had never been a case of humans contracting viruses from plants, the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement on its Web site (www.agri.gov.cn).

Hainan bananas were subject to rumours they caused cancer earlier this year when the island's plantations suffered a fungus blight called yellow wilt or, coincidentally, Panama disease.

SARS, the symptoms of which are similar to those of flu, spread as far afield as Canada from south China before it was brought under control in 2003. It killed close to 800 people out of 8,000 known to have been infected.

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