Poppy seeds come from the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. While the seeds contain minute amounts of opiates, other parts of the poppy plant such as the straw and latex (the milky white fluid within the pod) contain potentially high levels of intoxicating opiate compounds like codeine and morphine. As a result, careless handling of the seeds can lead to contamination during harvesting and processing.
A 2017 study revealed that researchers who purchased batches of seeds online found that “regardless of extraction conditions, lethal amounts of morphine can be rinsed from poppy seed coats by home-brewing methods.”
Indeed, cases reported to the FDA as well as the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System revealed 591 reports of exposure, 18 overdoses, and 7 deaths linked to exposure or consumption of poppy seeds in the US between 2000 and 2018. The majority of cases involved young males in their late teens to mid-twenties and often involved intentional consumption of poppy seeds or tea brewed from unwashed poppy seeds. Among the most commonly reported symptoms in these cases were drowsiness (25%), vomiting (23%), nausea (21%) and respiratory depression (12%).
More consumer protection
Now, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is ringing the alarm on poppy seeds. In February, CSPI urged the Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers by setting a maximum threshold for opiate contamination and establishing controls on imported seeds. The nonprofit nutrition watchdog group filed a regulatory petition on behalf of six families injured by contaminated poppy seeds.
CSPI previously called on the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration to address the risks of contaminated poppy seeds in April of 2019. In December 2019, the DEA clarified that selling opiate-contaminated poppy seeds can be illegal under the Controlled Substances Act.
In one high-profile case is that of 24-year-old Stephen Hacala, who died in 2016 after drinking tea made with contaminated, unwashed poppy seeds.
A 5 lb bag of unwashed poppy seeds from the brand Sincerely Nuts, purchased from Amazon, was recovered from Hacala's apartment. A toxicologist's analysis of Sincerely Nuts' five-pound bags of poppy seeds found it contained 6,000 mg of morphine — over 30 times a fatal dose.
Often it is a matter of suppliers not adequately processing their seeds. However, a simple google search reveals how some sellers are marketing their poppy seeds as ‘unwashed’ to signal that they have high levels of opiates to consumers who may be looking for the intoxicating effects. This is dangerous, considering consumers of ‘unwashed’ seeds may not be aware risks associated with these seeds. When brewed in a poppy tea, the seeds' opiate content becomes concentrated, putting drinkers at risk of overdose and addiction, according to CSPI.
“The issue of opium exposure through poppy seeds is a grim reminder of the issue of rampant contamination in our food supply. The onus is on brands to implement preventative controls to address unintentional environmental and industrial contamination in addition to adulteration in the food supply. Much more comprehensive analysis is needed when establishing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls (HARPC),” said Jackie Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project.
In 2019, Sen. Tom Cotton, Sen. John Boozman, and Rep. Steve Womack introduced the Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act, which would prohibit the direct sale of poppy seeds that contain harmful level of opiates to consumers. The bill has yet to be voted on.