Benikoji Supplement: Make All-Out Efforts to Halt Damage to Consumers’ Health

It defeats the purpose if a health food product that is supposed to help people live healthy lives actually causes disease. The relevant authorities must make every possible effort to prevent further harm.

Kobayashi Pharmaceutical Co. has begun a voluntary recall of its products in light of a rash of cases of kidney illnesses among people who have taken one of the supplements made with benikoji red rice mold. More than one person is known to have died and at least 100 have been hospitalized. This is an extremely serious situation.

The supplement in question is a “food with function claims” that purports to reduce bad cholesterol in the blood. Since January, doctors and people who had consumed the product contacted Kobayashi Pharmaceutical, and the company started an investigation.

The drugmaker supplied the benikoji ingredient to food manufacturers and others, and it was used in making food and beverage products. The companies that were provided with the ingredient have begun voluntary recalls of their own products. The impact could spread further.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has held a hearing with Kobayashi Pharmaceutical, and the Osaka city government has issued administrative action against the drugmaker based on the Food Sanitation Law, ordering a recall of the products. Hopefully not only the drug company, but also the central and local governments will actively make efforts to uncover the entire picture of the incident.

Currently, the cause of the health problems is not clear. When Kobayashi Pharmaceutical analyzed its benikoji ingredient, the drugmaker found that some of it might contain an unknown substance that the company did not intend to include.

If a substance of which even the manufacturer is unaware is included, users will become increasingly concerned. What was the substance and why was it included? It is essential for Kobayashi Pharmaceutical to speed up the investigation, clarify the cause-and-effect relationship with the health hazards and make the results public.

It took more than two months from the time the company became aware of the problem to the time of its announcement. Reporting to the relevant government ministries and agencies was also delayed. It is possible that the harm may have worsened during that time. Information should be shared promptly even if an investigation is still underway. It is also necessary to examine the delay in the company’s response.

Among health foods, foods with function claims are allowed to be labeled and advertised as having certain effects. The category was introduced in 2015 as part of regulatory reform. The aim is to make it easier for consumers to choose products.

However, there is no screening by the central government for foods with function claims. Companies are allowed to label their products as such foods on their own responsibility as long as they notify the Consumer Affairs Agency of the scientific basis for the claims. Since foods with function claims are widely sold, any health damage that occurs will have a significant impact. The benikoji incident could shake the credibility of foods with function claims.

The agency intends to conduct a blanket inspection of as many as 6,800 other foods with function claims to see if any health hazards have occurred. It is necessary to consider whether the system under which companies are required to only notify the agency is sufficient to protect the safety of consumers.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 28, 2024)