SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Scientists, doctors and pathologists are questioning the Sacramento County Coroner’s decision that Laurie McClintock’s death was related to white mulberry, a plant that has been used as an herbal remedy for centuries — and which the coroner’s botanical consultant called “a The letter is not poisonous.
McClintock, the wife of U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), died suddenly in December of dehydration caused by gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the stomach and intestines — caused by “adverse effects of eating white mulberry leaves.” 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 explaining — why she determined that white mulberry leaves caused the dehydration that killed McClintock at age 61, raising doubts among various 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 her using white mulberry leaves, supplements, extracts, powders — or any other method of consuming the plant — in documents released by the coroner’s office related to the case.
“It would take literally bushel baskets of white mulberry leaves to produce some kind of unpleasant effect. And even then, you don’t see anything lethal,” said Bill Gurley, chief 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 in herb-drug interactions, called white mulberry leaf — 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 track record for safety is unparalleled.”
“I’m just scratching my head as to how they can come to the conclusion that this woman, at least as far as we know, just died from eating a mulberry leaf,” he said.
Dr. Mary Hardy, who founded the Integrative Medicine Clinic at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and researched the safety of some alternative medicines and therapies for the now-defunct UCLA Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research, said the coroner’s conclusion was “not credible.”
“The presumed cause of death is not supported by the available records,” Hardy said.
Jean Barber, contacted through Sacramento County spokeswoman Kim Nava, declined KHN’s interview request and declined to provide information on how her office came to the conclusion that contributed to 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 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 extract or powder. They can consume young leaves raw or brewed as herbal tea.
It’s unclear how McClintock consumed white mulberry leaves — whether he ate them raw or drank them in tea — and where he got them.
Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents a district that spans multiple counties in central and northern California, found his wife unresponsive at their Elk Grove, Calif., home on Dec. 15, 2021, according to a coroner’s report. He 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 that “she’s been dieting carefully” and “she’s just joined a gym.”
In addition to the autopsy report and death certificate, KHN received the coroner’s report on March 10 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. It also commissioned 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. One of them said it is plausible that white mulberry leaves can contribute to dehydration.
All the pathologists said the coroner’s publicly released documents did not provide a complete picture of how McClintock died and did not include key details such as what the coroner’s office found in the home and whether McClintock had taken any drugs. or supplement.
“There are indications that some dehydration may occur. There really isn’t much to do with them,” said Dr. Gregory G. Davis, Director of Pathology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Department of Forensics and Chief Coroner-Medical Examiner of Jefferson County, Alabama.
“I don’t know that mulberry leaves necessarily played a role in the deaths,” Davis said, adding that other experts don’t consider it toxic.
“He looks from his autopsy results, he’s reasonably healthy, and you really wouldn’t expect him to die at this point. So it already makes it a tough case because it’s not obvious.”
College of American Pathologists Forensic Pathology Committee Chairman and Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill added that it can take several days for someone to die from dehydration. Just one leaf, which was not fully digested, a process that usually 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 from dehydration from not drinking,” Gill said. Based on the 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 his death investigations.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, no deaths from white mulberry have been reported in the past 10 years. Two cases of people getting sick from mulberry supplements have been reported to the FDA since 2002, according to its database that tracks “adverse events.” FDA spokeswoman Lindsey Hake declined to say whether the agency is looking into the case because the investigation is not public.
After KHN broke the story about McClintock’s cause of death, the coroner’s office released several additional documents, including a Dec. 29, 2021, letter from Alison Colwell, curator of the California-Davis Center for Plant Diversity. 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 states.
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 put it simply: “The white mulberry is not poisonous.”
“I compared the sample to lethally toxic species that have been planted or are native to the Sacramento area and found no match,” his letter said. Colwell declined an interview request.
The herbal products industry, the dietary supplement industry, and their allies were shocked at the possibility that McClintock could have died after taking a white mulberry leaf supplement—let alone a white mulberry leaf.
“It’s been used as food, it’s been used as medicine,” said Rick Kingston, a clinical professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy. He is the co-founder of Ceftical International, a company that helps the supplement industry and other clients log and track adverse events related to 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 sparse in terms of 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 conducts botanical plant testing for the supplement industry and other clients, said Colwell’s letter lacked the details of his evaluation of the leaf that would help others reading the report definitively identify it as white mulberry. Either that, he said, or the leaf was not a white mulberry.
He said the coroner should release more information, reopen the case and conduct a more rigorous examination.
“I’d like to see a re-examination and understand why they came to the conclusion that she basically died from an inert leaf,” Sudberg said.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.
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