Sacramento, California. — Scientists, doctors and pathologists are challenging the Sacramento County coroner’s conclusion that Lori McClintock’s death was related to white mulberry, a plant that has been used as an herbal remedy for centuries and that the botanist coroner’s consultant called “non-toxic.” In a letter to his office.
McClintock, wife of US Rep. Tom McClintock (Republican of California), died suddenly in December of gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, caused by “an adverse effect of eating white mulberry leaves” due to dehydration. In a report from the Sacramento County Coroner. The coroner ruled the death an accident.
But Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Jean did not explain — or provide records to explain — why she determined dehydration caused by white mulberry leaves killed McClintock at age 61, drawing skepticism from a range of experts.
According to the autopsy report, a “partially intact” white mulberry leaf was found in Laurie McClintock’s stomach. But there is no other mention of using the leaves, supplements, extracts, powders, or any other method of consuming the plant, according to documents the coroner’s office released about the case.
“It would literally take a huge basket of white mulberry leaves to have any kind of adverse effect. And even then, you don’t see anything lethal,” said Bill Gurley, senior scientist at the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research, which collaborates with academic, government and industry officials to research and develop natural products.
Gurley, an expert on herb-drug interactions, called white mulberry leaf, which is used for a variety of ailments including diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, “probably one of the safest leaves in the world” and said “its safety record is second to none.”
“I’m just wondering how on earth they could conclude that this woman, at least as far as we know, died from eating just one mulberry leaf,” he said.
Dr. Mary Hardy, founder of the Integrative Medicine Clinic at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, who researched the safety of some alternative medicines and therapies for the now-defunct UCLA Botanical Dietary Supplement Research Center, said the coroner’s conclusion was “not credible.”
“The presumed cause of death is not supported by the available records,” Hardy said.
Zinn, reached through Sacramento County spokeswoman Kim Nava, repeatedly declined KHN’s interview requests and declined to provide information explaining how her office came to the conclusion that a piece of white mulberry leaf contributed to KHN McClintock’s death.
The leaves and fruits of the white mulberry tree native to China have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Academic studies conducted over the past decade have shown that its leaf extract can lower blood sugar levels and aid in weight loss.
People take it in capsule or pill form, as an extract, or as a powder. You can also eat the young leaves raw or prepare them as herbal tea.
How McClintock consumed the white mulberry leaf—either eating it raw or drinking it as a tea—and where he got it from is unclear.
Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents a multi-county district in central and northern California, found his wife unresponsive in their Elk Grove home on Dec. 15, 2021, according to a coroner’s report. McClintock did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
At his wife’s funeral in January, Tom McClintock told mourners she was fine when he spoke to her the day before she died. But according to the coroner’s report, the day before his death “he complained of an upset stomach.”
McClintock told mourners he was “dieting carefully” and “started at a gym.”
KHN received the coroner’s report on March 10, in addition to the autopsy report and death certificate, and reported the findings in August.
The coroner’s office tested McClintock’s body for the flu, other respiratory viruses and Covid-19. None detected. He also conducted independent lab tests that showed McClintock had elevated levels of urea nitrogen, sodium and creatinine, all signs of dehydration, according to five pathologists interviewed by KHN. Only one of them said it was credible that white mulberry leaves could contribute to dehydration.
All pathologists said the publicly released coroner’s documents do not provide a complete picture of how McClintock died, and the coroner’s office did not include key details such as what was found in his home and whether McClintock was taking any medications or supplements.
“There are indications that some dehydration may occur. They really don’t have much else,” said Dr. Gregory G. Davis, director of the Division of Forensics in the Department of Pathology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and Chief Medical Examiner of Jefferson County, Alabama.
“I don’t know if the mulberry leaf necessarily played a role in the death,” Davis said, adding that other experts don’t consider it toxic.
“His autopsy results look like he was reasonably healthy, and you really wouldn’t expect him to die at that time. It already makes it a difficult case because it’s not obvious.”
Dr. James Gill, chairman of the College of American Pathologists’ Committee on Forensic Pathology and Connecticut’s chief medical examiner, added that it can take a long time for someone to die from dehydration. A single leaf, which was not fully digested, a process that normally takes only a few hours, “would not have contributed to the death,” he said.
“It takes at least a week or more for someone to die of dehydration from not drinking,” Gill said. According to available records, “there are some things that don’t really add up.”
Gill said he would have ruled McClintock’s death a natural death of unknown causes, which occurs in about 5% of the deaths he investigates.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, no deaths from white mulberry have been reported in the past 10 years.
Since 2002, two cases of people getting sick from mulberry supplements have been reported to the FDA, according to its database that tracks “adverse events.” FDA spokeswoman Lindsey Hake declined to say whether the agency is investigating the case because it does not make its investigations public.
After KHN broke the story about McClintock’s cause of death, the coroner’s office released several additional documents, including a letter dated Dec. 29, 2021, from Allison Colwell, curator of the Center for Plant Diversity at the University of California-Davis. The coroner asked Colwell to identify the 1 1/8-inch by 1 7/8-inch leaf fragment found in McClintock’s stomach during the autopsy.
Colwell identified it as a white mulberry and concluded, based on its softness and “some green color,” that it was “probably eaten fresh,” his letter said.
Although white mulberry trees are common in the Sacramento region, he notes that in December, their leaves are “hard, yellow and mostly fallen off the tree.”
Colwell states simply: “White mulberry is non-poisonous.”
“I compared the sample to lethally toxic species known to be planted or native to the Sacramento area and found no match,” his letter said. Colwell declined an interview request.
The herbal industry, the dietary supplement industry and their allies are leaning toward the possibility that McClintock died after taking a supplement containing white mulberry leaves, let alone a white mulberry leaf.
“It’s been used as food, as medicine,” said Rick Kingston, clinical professor at the University of Minnesota School of Pharmacy. He is also the co-founder of Ceftical International, a company that helps the supplement industry and other customers record and track adverse events associated with their products.
The American Herbal Products Association, which represents herbal growers and manufacturers, commissioned Kingston to review McClintock’s case. “I’ve been looking at a lot of autopsy reports,” Kingston said. “I have to admit that it was pretty lacking in supporting data.”
Several botanists also questioned whether the leaf found in McClintock’s stomach was white mulberry.
Alan Sudberg, CEO of California-based Alchemist Labs, which tests botanicals for the supplement industry and other clients, said Colwell’s letter did not detail his assessment of the leaves, which would help others. They read the report to identify it for sure that it was white mulberry, or the leaves were not white mulberry, he said.
He added that the coroner should release more information, reopen the case and conduct more rigorous examinations.
“I would like to see a new test and understand why they came to the conclusion that it was basically killed by an inert leaf,” Sudberg said.
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