World

Japanese officials inspect second factory as health supplements linked to deaths

The supplements being investigated all used ‘benikoji’, a kind of red mould.

Japan’s health ministry officials walk into a plant operated by a subsidiary of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical (Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News/AP)
Health officials Japan’s health ministry officials walk into a plant operated by a subsidiary of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical (Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News/AP) (Yohei Fukai/AP)

Japanese government health officials have inspected a factory producing health supplements linked to at least five deaths and illness among more than 100 other people, a day after the authorities investigated another plant that manufactured the product.

A team of 17 health officials from the central and prefectural governments raided a plant operated by Kobayashi Pharmaceutical’s subsidiary in Kinokawa, in the western Japanese prefecture of Wakayama, under the food sanitation act.

NHK public television showed the officials walk into the factory.

The Wakayama plant took over the production of the supplements after Kobayashi Pharmaceutical closed another plant in nearby Osaka, which authorities searched on Saturday, NHK said.

Kobayashi Pharmaceutical spokesperson Yuko Tomiyama told reporters the company is fully co-operating in the investigation.

The company says little is known about the exact cause of the illnesses, which include kidney failure.

An employee of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical speaks to the media outside a plant operated by its subsidiary in Kinokawa (Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News/AP)
Staff speak to media An employee of Kobayashi Pharmaceutical speaks to the media outside a plant operated by its subsidiary in Kinokawa (Yohei Fukai/Kyodo News/AP) (Yohei Fukai/AP)

The supplements being investigated all used “benikoji”, a kind of red mould, including Kobayashi Pharmaceuticals’ pink pills called Benikoji Choleste Help, which were billed as helping lower cholesterol levels.

Osaka-based Kobayashi Pharmaceutical said about a million packages were sold over the past three fiscal years. It also sold benikoji to other manufacturers, and some products have been exported. The supplements could be bought without a prescription from a doctor.

Reports of health problems surfaced in 2023, although benikoji has been used in various products for years.

The recall came on March 22, two months after the company had received official medical reports about the problem. Company president Akihiro Kobayashi has apologised for not acting sooner.

On Friday, the company said five people had died and 114 people were being treated in hospital after taking the products.

Japan’s health ministry says the supplements could be responsible for the deaths and illnesses, and warned the number of those affected could grow. The government has ordered a review of the approval system in response to the supplement-related illnesses.

Some analysts blame the recent deregulation initiatives, which simplified and sped up approval for health products to spur economic growth. Deaths from a mass-produced item is rare in Japan, as government checks over consumer products are relatively stringent.