The governor of Veneto, one of the regions worst hit by an outbreak in Italy of coronavirus, apologized on Saturday for criticizing China over the contagion and saying Chinese people "eat live mice".
Luca Zaia has pinned the blame on China for the flare-up in Italy, which has led to at least 21 deaths, saying that unlike Italians, the Chinese did not have good standards of hygiene.
"The hygiene that our people, the Venetians and the Italian citizens have, the cultural training we have, is that of taking a shower, of washing, of washing one's hands often," Zaia said in a Antenna 3-Nord Est TV television interview on Friday.
"It is a cultural fact that China has paid a big price for this epidemic because we have seen them all eat mice live or things like that."
His words stung the Chinese embassy in Rome. "At a crucial time like this, when China and Italy stand side-by-side to deal with the epidemic, an Italian politician has spared no slander about the Chinese people. This is a gratuitous attack that leaves us stunned," it wrote on Facebook.
Political opponents of Zaia also denounced his comments, saying they would damage ties between the two countries. The Veneto governor, who is a member of the rightist League party, said had not meant to cause offence.
"My words came out badly, I agree. If anyone was offended, I am sorry," he told Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday. "I wanted to say that when it comes to food health and safety, controls change from country to country."
The new coronavirus emerged at the end of 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan where scientists believe it might have passed to humans from animals at a local market where bats, snakes and other wildlife were sold. China temporarily shut down all such markets in January, warning that eating wild animals posed a threat to public health and safety.
The total accumulated number of confirmed cases in Italy has risen to almost 900, latest data shows, making it the worst affected country in Europe.
In China, the virus has caused nearly 80,000 infections and 2,835 deaths, according to official figures.