Deaths linked to recalled supplement pill containing red mold climb

Tokyo — In the week since a line of Japanese health supplements began being recalled, five people have died and more than 100 people were hospitalized as of Friday. Osaka-based Kobayashi Pharmaceutical Co. came under fire for not going public quickly with problems known internally as early as January. The first public announcement came March 22.

Company officials said 114 people were being treated in hospitals after taking products, including Benikoji Choleste Help meant to lower cholesterol, that contain an ingredient called benikoji, a red species of mold. Earlier in the week, the number of deaths stood at two people.

Some people developed kidney problems after taking the supplements, but the exact cause was still under investigation in cooperation with government laboratories, according to the manufacturer.

Japan Drug Supplement Recall
Akihiro Kobayashi, President of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical Co., left, bows during a press conference in Osaka, on March 22, 2024. 

Chiaki Ueda/AP

“We apologize deeply,” President Akihiro Kobayashi told reporters Friday, bowing for a long time to emphasize the apology alongside three other top company officials.

He expressed remorse to those who have died and have been sickened, and to their families. He also apologized for the troubles caused to the entire health food industry and the medical profession, adding that the company was working to prevent further damage and improve crisis management.

The company’s products have been recalled — as have dozens of other products that contain benikoji, including miso paste, crackers and a vinegar dressing. Japan’s health ministry put up a list on its official site of all the recalled products, including some that use benikoji for food coloring.

The ministry warned the deaths could keep growing. The supplements could be bought at drug stores without a prescription from a doctor, and some may have been purchased or exported before the recall, including by tourists who may not be aware of the health risks.

Japan Drug Supplement Recall
A factory of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical Co., is seen in Osaka, Japan on March 26, 2024.

Keiji Uesho / AP

Kobayashi Pharmaceutical had been selling benikoji products for years, with a million packages sold over the past three fiscal years, but a problem crept up with the supplements produced in 2023. Kobayashi Pharmaceutical said it produced 18.5 tons of benikoji last year.

Some analysts blame the recent deregulation initiatives, which simplified and sped up approval for health products to spur economic growth.

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