Eating Poppy Seeds Can Make You Fail a Drug Test—or Cause an Overdose | Civil Eats

Eating the Wrong Poppy Seeds Can Upend Your Life

From new parents failing drug tests in the maternity ward to people overdosing after drinking poppy-seed tea, contamination is a problem that science groups and advocates are urging the FDA to fix.

A bag of poppy seed bagels, some of which could be contaminated by high levels of opiates. (Photo by Christopher Dilts, Bloomberg)

Photo by Christopher Dilts, Bloomberg.

On her way to the hospital to give birth to her third child, Jamie Silakowski stopped at Tim Hortons for a coffee and slice of lemon poppy seed bread. Silakowski’s son was born without complications, but her life was upended when the bread, the only food in her system, caused her to fail a routine hospital drug test.

Edible poppy seeds, which can be contaminated with the poppy plant’s natural opioids if not processed properly, have long been linked to failed drug tests. In the past, most tests have been able to distinguish illicit drug use from poppy seed consumption. But according to the U.S. Defense Department, recent data suggest that some poppy seeds now contain a higher level of contamination, making it more difficult to determine the cause of a failed test.

In 2022, in response to mounting public pressure, Congress directed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to finally regulate the opiate contamination of poppy seeds; the agency has yet to do so.

“I’m still blown away that doctors and nurses don’t know more about this, considering it doesn’t seem that uncommon,” Silakowski, a resident of Depew, New York, said. “I wasn’t allowed to take my son home for four days. It turned my life upside down. Child Protective Services visited my older children’s school, and it was a huge embarrassment. I lost a lot of relationships because people doubted me.”

Silakowski, whose case was cleared after a four-month investigation that began in 2018, signed a 2021 petition to the FDA that highlighted the dire need for the agency to set a maximum threshold limiting opiate contamination of poppy seeds. Regulations would not only address the food safety issue for the general public, but also the lesser-known problem of consumers soaking contaminated seeds to brew a potent tea, which has led to overdoses and deaths.

“It turned my life upside down. Child Protective Services visited my older children’s school, and it was a huge embarrassment.”

A number of stakeholders are advocating for these regulations. The 2021 petition’s signatories included Silakowski and one other mother, two medical experts, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the family members of three people who died from poppy-seed tea overdoses. Meanwhile, mothers nationwide continue to report the problem, and the Defense Department recently warned military servicemembers to avoid poppy seed products.

“We believe that the FDA has the ability to act,” said Steve Hacala, who signed the FDA petition after his son died at age 24 from drinking poppy-seed tea. “We know they’ve been looking at this issue for years, but [we] are disappointed with the fact that they have not made any public policy decisions, as far as regulating the way these seeds come into the country.”

Since 1942, it has been illegal in the U.S. to grow Papaver somniferum, the poppy species that produces opiate alkaloids such as morphine, codeine, and thebaine—all controlled substances. The only part of the Papaver somniferum plants that are not highly regulated are the edible seeds, which are imported to the U.S. for baking and widely available. The seeds can be contaminated with the milky sap that permeates other parts of the plant if not cleaned.

Enforcing best practices for imported seeds could go a long way toward reducing the problem. The European Commission released seed processing guidance in 2014 for preventing opiate contamination, noting that a combination of washing, heating, and grinding the seeds at lower temperatures can effectively bring contamination to “non-detectable quantities.”

Notably, seed contamination is also deliberate in some cases and intended for drug abuse, according to Dr. James Kincheloe from CSPI. “Sellers know exactly what they are doing, selling these seeds that are highly contaminated. [They] will market ‘unwashed’ or ‘unprocessed’ poppy seeds.”

CSPI has shown that abuse in the U.S. is likely on the rise. A 2021 study coauthored by two of the group’s scientists found 19 reported deaths associated with poppy plants, most of which  occurred since 2015. Many of these deaths were overdoses from poppy-seed tea.

Slow Response from the FDA

The FDA has so far failed to create regulations to address poppy seed contamination, despite a clear directive from Congress last year to do so. Other countries are leading the way: The European Union took definitive steps last summer, regulating both seeds and baked goods.

In response to “reports of positive drug tests, addiction, overdose, and death related to contaminated imported poppy seeds,” Congressional reports on the 2022 Appropriations bill directed the FDA “to establish a maximum permissible threshold of opiate alkaloid content for poppy seeds and carry out appropriate regulatory or enforcement measures to ensure safety of poppy seeds.”

“Sellers know exactly what they are doing, selling these seeds that are highly contaminated. [They] will market ‘unwashed’ or ‘unprocessed’ poppy seeds.”

In February, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Arkansas) and Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, chastising the agency for not addressing the issue.

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“The inaction to accomplish this straightforward task of determining an opiate contamination threshold for poppy seeds only contributes to the perception of the dysfunction at the agency,” the representatives wrote. “Such a threshold, set publicly by the FDA, would warn consumers of the potential dangers of poppy seeds and act as a catalyst for both the government and private industry to determine the best means of ensuring that seeds entering the country are safe.”

Under widespread scrutiny, the FDA is currently restructuring its foods program. In the wake of the infant formula crisis, the agency last year commissioned an external review, which ultimately recommended an overhaul of division’s management structure and mission. In their February letter, the representatives underscored poppy seed contamination as a priority, requesting a briefing with FDA staff to discuss “actions and timelines.”

In an email to Civil Eats, the FDA acknowledged “the significant importance of this issue and its impact on public health,” according to an agency spokesperson. The spokesperson said that the FDA is gathering and evaluating the scientific evidence relevant to setting a threshold level, “in addition to information that may help inform other potential options, including appropriate regulatory and enforcement measures, that could be part of a strategy for addressing poppy seed opiate alkaloid content.”

Food safety groups such as CSPI have asked for the FDA to coordinate with both the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Customs and Border Protection. In a win for advocates, in 2019, the DEA clarified that “unwashed” poppy seeds that show opiate contamination should be considered controlled substances.

The DEA already defined other parts of Papaver somniferum—including the opium poppy, poppy straw, opium, opiates, and their derivatives—as Schedule II controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, but had previously excluded the seeds as a concern.

Outside of the U.S., there are several precedents for setting an opiate contamination threshold. Most significantly, the European Union last July established maximum levels for morphine and codeine in whole, ground, or milled poppy seeds and for bakery products containing poppy seeds.

Poppy Seed Food Product Safety

How worried should the average consumer be about eating foods made with poppy seeds? From a health risk perspective, not very, says Madeleine Swortwood, a researcher from Sam Houston State University who signed the 2021 petition to the FDA.

Swortwood published a study in 2017 that noted that “poppy seeds are typically consumed in small quantities in baked goods, such as 3 grams of seeds in a poppy seed bun. These quantities may not pose a risk to consumers.” The study instead focused on the risks of home-brewed teas, used as opiates, proving they can be fatal.

Nevertheless, contaminated food products remain a huge problem with dire consequences for people who fail a drug test, such as new mothers—and the issue may be getting worse.

The Department of Health and Human Services raised the acceptable opiate limit in 1998 to account for prescribed medications and poppy seed food products, but some institutions are still testing for lower levels of opiates.

In a February memo, Under Secretary of Defense Gilbert R. Cisneros, Jr. advised all service members to avoid poppy seed products out of an “abundance of caution.” He wrote, “Consumption of poppy seed products could cause a codeine positive urinalysis result and undermine the department’s ability to identify illicit drug use.”

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New parents like Silakowski have continually reported the issue. In some cases, they say, hospitals are setting their tests at too low a level, causing more false-positive results and upending more lives. They note that the Department of Health and Human Services raised the acceptable limit back in 1998 to account for prescribed medications and poppy seed food products, but some institutions are still testing for lower levels of opiates.

Most recently, the ACLU filed two separate complaints on behalf of two women who say eating poppy seed bagels resulted in positive opiate test results in the hospitals where they gave birth. Although both women were ultimately cleared of suspected opiate abuse, the ACLU is using the complaints to push for broader change.

In March, the ACLU appealed to New Jersey’s civil rights division to investigate the mothers’ claims, order the two hospitals to stop drug testing expectant mothers without their consent, publicize hospital drug testing policies—including cut-off limits for each substance—and award compensatory damages for mental and psychological pain and suffering.

Silakowski is glad to hear that the new parents are taking legal action. “It’s a lot more draining than people realize,” she said, “especially at a time when you’re supposed to be enjoying a newborn and you’re going through all that stress.”

Anna Guth is a freelance editor and reporter based in Marin County, California. Previously a staff writer for the Point Reyes Light, she has a degree in English and environmental studies from Wesleyan University. Read more >

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  1. Katie Painter
    What on earth, do hospitals routinely drug test women giving birth? I don't remember this happening when my son was born, unless it happened without my consent. How invasive and sketchy, and possibly discriminatory? Are they drug testing new dads, also? Guessing no, since just the mom is the patient?

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