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Second factory checked over deaths linked to supplement

Health authorities have searched a second Kobayashi Pharmaceutical factory in western Japan after the company reported five deaths possibly tied to dietary supplements.

The inspection in Wakayama prefecture on Sunday follows one on Saturday in Osaka, expanding the investigation into the drugmaker's use of "Beni-Koji" red yeast materials.

Osaka-based Kobayashi says it found what appeared to be potentially toxic puberulic acid that could have been produced by blue mould penicillium in Beni-Koji materials produced between last April and October at the Osaka factory.

As of Friday, 114 people had been hospitalised and five had died after taking the supplements, which were marketed as helping lower cholesterol levels, the company said.

The cause of the deaths has not been confirmed, the official of Japan's Health and Welfare Ministry told Reuters. But "it is suspected that Beni-Koji may be the cause, so we have inspected two factories in two days."

Kobayashi said on Friday it was investigating a suspected link between the products and their effects on the kidney since it received reports of kidney disease linked to the products.

"We will fully cooperate with the investigation so that we can resolve the problems as early as possible," the head of Kobayashi's investor relations, Yuko Tomiyama, told reporters on Sunday in footage shown by public broadcaster NHK.

The health official said the ministry "would join hands with other ministries concerned to do our utmost to resolve the ongoing case while asking Kobayashi Pharma to cooperate as needed in looking into the case".

The factory in Osaka's Yodogawa Ward was closed in December due to ageing facilities and production shifted to the factory in the city of Kinokawa that was searched on Sunday, Japanese media reported.

The government has criticised the company for taking two months to announce the health impacts of its products. Kobayashi began recalling products on March 22 after receiving reports of kidney ailments.

Its products are also consumed in other countries.

Kobayashi sells Beni-Koji wholesale to 52 companies, which have conducted voluntary inspections and found no materials requiring medical consultation as of Friday, NHK said. Those companies sell the materials on to 173 others, it said.

TV Asahi reported that 1800 foodmakers could be affected.

Beni-Koji contains Monascus purpureus, a red mould used as a food colouring.