Natural Foods Merchandiser

Study-related deaths question safety of probiotics

Twenty-four subjects died during a recent study at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, Netherlands, testing the effectiveness of probiotics at reducing infection in patients with acute pancreatitis. The deaths created a short blitz of media hype calling into question the safety of probiotics overall.

However, according to a press release from the International Probiotics Association, the researchers were unable to directly connect either death or infection to the use of probiotics.

"Looking at the research, there's nothing to implicate probiotics in the deaths," said Ioannis Misopoulos, executive director at IPA. "The problem was that the researchers' press release, released before the whole study, gave a negative impression and spurned speculation in the media. They are now conducting post-mortem work to find out what really happened."

One of the biggest considerations is the fact that the subjects were very ill with severe pancreatitis, a serious and often fatal condition. Further, the probiotics were being administered in high doses as a drug and directly to the stomach via feeding tubes.

Misopoulos and other experts point out that probiotics are not intended to be used in "drug" form or to treat acute illness, nor would anyone typically take them via a feeding tube.

"Due to the study's method of administering probiotics, any implications do not apply to the normal consumption of probiotic foods, supplements and beverages," Misopoulos said. "With normal use, the record of safety is exemplary especially when probiotics are used per manufacturers' recommendations in healthy and mildly ill people."

Following the news, the European Food and Feed Cultures Association issued similar remarks seriously questioning any link between probiotics and the deaths and restating the safety and efficacy of probiotics in foods and beverages. At the same time, the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority said it is safe to take probiotic drinks.?

Perhaps post-mortem studies will offer more insight into what really caused the deaths, but in the meantime, according to industry and government organizations, the traditional health benefits probiotics foods, drinks and supplements remain unspoiled in light of the study's inconclusive findings.

"IPA takes all negative studies very seriously," the recent IPA press release stated, "but until the study is fully published and available for review one cannot jump to conclusions since it currently raises more questions than answers, and it is inconsistent with the long record of safety and health benefits of probiotics."

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