At least 5 deaths linked to recalled supplement pill containing red mold

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Tokyo – Five people have died and more than 100 have been hospitalized as of Friday, in the week since the recall of a series of Japanese health supplements began. Osaka-based Kobayashi Pharmaceutical Co. faced criticism in early January for not going public sooner about problems it knew about internally. The first public announcement came on 22 March.

Company officials said 114 people were being treated in hospitals after taking the products, including Benicozi Choleste Help to lower cholesterol, which contains an ingredient called benicozi, a red species of fungus. Earlier in the week, the death toll stood at two people.

According to the manufacturer, some people developed kidney problems after taking the supplement, but the exact cause is still being investigated in cooperation with government laboratories.

Akihiro Kobayashi, president of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical Co., bows during a press conference in Osaka on March 22, 2024.

Chiaki Ueda/AP

“We deeply apologize,” President Akihiro Kobayashi told reporters on Friday. He bowed to three other top executives of the company to insist on an apology.

He expressed regret to those who have died and fallen ill and their families. He also apologized for the distress caused to the entire health food industry and the medical profession, and said the company was working to prevent further damage and improve crisis management.

The company’s products have been recalled — along with dozens of other products that contain benikoji, including miso paste, crackers and vinegar dressings. Japan’s Health Ministry has posted a list of all the recalled products on its official site, including those that use benikoji to color certain foods.

The ministry warned that deaths could continue to rise. The supplements can be purchased at drugstores without a doctor’s prescription, and some may have been purchased or exported before the recall, including by tourists who may not be aware of the health risks.

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 one million packages sold over the past three fiscal years, but a problem arose with a supplement produced in 2023. Kobayashi Pharmaceutical said it produced 18.5 tons of Benikoji last year.

Some analysts blame recent deregulation initiatives, which have simplified and expedited approval of health products to spur economic growth.

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