Some Mexican publications linked the death of Lorena Peralta Baltazar, a 28 year old Mexican woman, to overconsumption of Herbalife products they reported she had become addicted to. The reports alleged that the family and local authorities said lead had been found in her blood, pointing the finger at the weight loss products she was said to consume regularly as the source of lead.
However, in a letter from the hospital seen by NutraIngredients, Dr Jairo Trejo Pérez, director of the General Hospital of Huixtla in Chiapas which dealt with the case last week, said it did not have, “any evidence to link the decease of the patient with the intake of the mentioned products”, and any suggestion that a physician at the hospital had said otherwise was untrue.
According to a translation of the letter, the hospital director said: “As it appears in her medical record, Lorena Peralta Baltazar’s death was related to a previous serious illness and not because ‘the patient had multiple organ failures due to lead content in her blood’, as mentioned by the media.”
The allegations have been rebutted by Herbalife which expressed remorse for Baltazar and her family but said it had nothing to do with its products.
However, this did not stop the allegations being picked up by UK publication The Daily Mirror, an article which was subsequently removed after Herbalife challenged their veracity. The story remains on some Mexican publications.
Julian Cacchioli, global corporate communications VP, said more than 750,000 shakes were consumed every day in Mexico alone, adding Herbalife had never received any notice of these kinds of adverse effects before.
“Any assertion that our products could be related to this unfortunate death is completely unfounded and not supported by the rigorous safety studies that have been conducted on our products,” the firm said.
Accusations of lead poisoning
On the matter of potential lead contamination Herbalife said it had strict in-house and third party quality control systems for testing products from raw materials to finished products, as well as having a, “robust global post-market safety surveillance program in place to collect and assess any reports of adverse events” for the shakes which had been on the market for 34 years.
The company added: “We have not received any reports to suggest consumption of our products could cause the alleged health effects nor has any health agency made this assertion.”
It also noted it adhered to strict Californian Proposition 65 contamination laws, which were tighter than federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
A context of criticism
Herbalife's sales structure and methods have drawn criticism and last year a coalition of black and Hispanic groups led a protest against the company, which the coalition said was exploiting low-income minority communities by recruiting individuals into its sales force with unrealistic profit goals.
Last year Herbalife had a Belgian court ruling overturned that had dubbed the company a pyramid scheme. A second ruling found the 'multi-level compensation opportunity' as it is called by Herbalife, is within European consumer protection laws.