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Have you heard of poppy seed tea? Perhaps you use it occasionally to help you sleep at night? Apparently, it’s very dangerous to drink poppy seed tea, and at least 12 people have died from it. Here’s the low down on Poppy Seed Tea dangers:
OK, so what’s the deal here?
The poppy flower is a gorgeous creation with large leaves and a big dark center, similar in appearance to the stunning anemone. It’s a plant with many uses…species of poppy are cultivated around the world for their beauty, symbolism, and in the case of the opium poppy, the opium. The ancients called it the “Joy plant”—with a name like that of course it spread around the world and even spawned wars in the 1800s.
And…with a name like that, it’s hard not to roll your eyes when you point out that the plant does have practical uses. Opium comes from the milky latex in the unripe seed capsule of the opium poppy. A part of the plant so specific you have to wonder how the ancients discovered its properties. Opium is the source for morphine, that heavy hitting pain drug by which all other pain drugs are measured. Codeine, used for less intense pain relief and also cough relief, and oxycodone, another pain reliever, are also derived from opium. Most infamously, opium is the source of heroin.
Once fully ripe, the seeds lose their narcotic properties (according to Encyclopedia Britannia) and fully ripe seeds are used in baking, to make oil, and feed birds. You’ve almost certainly had lemon poppy seed cake or bagels with poppy seeds on top. Most of the poppy seeds used for food are from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, but the amounts used in cooking are far too small to be dangerous. Though, apparently, they can cause a false positive on a drug test, which has been known long enough to be a laugh line and flimsy excuse from job applicants.
If you google “poppy seeds” your browser will fill with places to buy them, and articles about whether or not they will cause you to fail a drug test. If you google “poppy seed tea” you’ll be bombarded with both recipes and big warnings that the tea can kill you.
The problem is “contaminated poppy seeds,” which makes it sound like a more typical food poisoning situation, where the plant has been tainted by bad water. But that’s not the case. It’s the plants own properties which are the issue. It’s like eating improperly prepared puffer fish. Exactly how much do you trust this chef? And every person who touched the fish between the ocean and the table?
Simply put, fully ripe opium poppy seeds are safe. If the seeds are not fully ripe, then they still have the milky opium, and that can kill you. How many growers and processing plants can swear on their lives that there are no slightly less than perfectly ripe teeny tiny seeds in those bags they sell?
Opium Is the Thing, Now, Isn’t it?
As mentioned, the point of poppy seed tea is for relaxation, pain relief, and sleep. Sometimes it’s used to help the bowels. These are the very same things that opium was used for originally. The very thing that makes a person want to use the tea is the very thing that makes the tea dangerous. The amount of opium released in homebrew methods makes it both effective and dangerous.
Despite the connection between the seeds and opium, poppy seeds are legal and incredibly easy to come by. They are sold by many online retailers and brands; they are also carried in brick and mortar stores. Recipes for the tea are easy to find on the internet—though now many of them include cautions and very specific instructions about what kind of poppy to use (one I found recommended the California poppy, which is not an opium poppy). Mercola.com offers a “Healthy Poppy Seed Tea Recipe” of 200 g (0.44 lbs) poppy seeds in 400 ml water, and Chewtheworld.com says to brew 300 g of poppy seeds in 400 ml of water, advising consumers: “[t]o prevent overdose, Health And Nutrition Tips suggests ingesting not more than 3 pounds of poppy seeds.”
A death from a poppy seed overdose is hard to catch because it looks just like any other overdose—unless one specific test is done looking for one specific chemical which is only found when the opium was only one step removed from the seed. Scientists at Sam Houston State University tested 22 readily available brands of poppy seeds, using tea-brewing techniques found on the internet, and found that even moderate use of poppy tea could easily result in ingesting lethal amounts of morphine. There was some variety in morphine levels from one brand to another and from one harvest time to another, but the risk was common. The difference between just barely overdosed and extremely overdosed isn’t as important as the difference between “not too much” and “too much.”
It’s incredibly easy to accidentally die from drinking poppy tea.
Here’s the other interesting thing: Opioid poppy and poppy straws are controlled substances in the U.S.A., but poppy seeds are not. Probably because, as mentioned earlier, they are harmless when fully ripe and used in baking.
The FDA has urged the DEA to crackdown on the sale of unwashed poppy seeds, and even issued an order to poppy seed retailers to stop making even vaguely medical statements about the uses of poppy seeds.
Because of the dangers posed by the opium levels in unwashed poppy seeds, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wrote a letter to the FDA, the DOJ and others urging them to take action to regulate unwashed poppy seeds. Besides causing accidental death, unwashed poppy seeds are a readily available source of illicit opium. Poppy tea is also, therefore, potentially addictive.
The European Union (EU) has adopted regulations for the breeding, pest control and harvesting of poppies which reduce the chance of contaminating fully ripe poppy seeds with the other, deadlier, parts of the plant. CSPI urges adopting similar policies. The letter collects and presents evidence of the poppy seed deaths, the scientific properties in play, and the laws already violated by the sale of contaminated seeds. CSPI argues that the FDA and DOJ have ample authority to take action to regulate poppy seeds, and that it’s time they should.
It’s really harder to disagree with that.
Nonprofit watchdog the Center for Science in the Public Interest is once again sounding the alarm about unwashed poppy seeds.
The CSPA formally petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to take action. Their petition calls for the FDA to establish a “maximum permissible threshold” of opiate alkaloids in poppy seeds. They’re also calling for import requirements and testing of poppy seeds to ensure that they’re in keeping with that threshold.
“The risk of contaminating poppy seeds with high levels of opiate alkaloids before they reach the consumer can be largely mitigated through appropriate preventive controls by producers,” they write.
In support of these requests, the CSPA cites the fact that the poppy plant, from whence the seeds come, contains opiate alkaloids. The amount varies from strain to strain and plant to plant, but all poppies have some. Some alkaloids, like morphine and codeine, are well known. Others, such as thebaine, are a little less familiar. All are potent painkillers that produce euphoria and other good feelings; they also can have harmful psychological, social, and physiological effects such as addiction, overdose, or death.
Domestic cultivation of poppies in the United States has been illegal since the passage of the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. Several of our trade partners produce poppies, however, providing the United States with seeds from abroad. Many of these countries, such as Spain, Turkey, Hungary, France, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, and Germany, are in the European Union.
The opiate alkaloid content of poppy seeds imported from the EU varies widely. Researchers at the European Food Safety Authority collected and tested more than a thousand samples of poppy seeds from various countries between 2012 and 2017. The mean level of opiate alkaloids per seeds was 57.8 mg / kg. The highest level of contamination, however, was almost tenfold that number, at 596 milligrams of alkaloids per kilogram of seeds.
That’s a significant level of variation. Consumers purchasing unwashed poppy seeds won’t know whether they’re getting 57 milligrams of alkaloids per kilo of seeds or ten times that. Because imported seeds are not tested or labelled for opiate alkaloid content, and because the level and kind of opiate alkaloid varies considerably from one sort of seeds to another, there’s little consistency and or transparency about what you’re getting with your unwashed seeds.
A customer who purchases the seeds with the intention of making tea, for example, might find that they’re getting a lot more opiates per kilo of seeds than intended. That could mean that the tea that they’re making is stronger than expected. That, in turn, can have all kinds of unwanted downstream effects, including a higher tolerance, addictive behavior, overdose or death.
Cited in the release is new research which shows an uptick in adverse events related to consumption of poppy seeds. Specifically, they call attention to an article that was published in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology: Opioid exposure associated with poppy consumption reported to poison control centers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The article draws on nearly two decades of data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System. Clarifying information is also brought in from the adverse event reporting systems maintained by the FDA.
The article found that 591 cases of poppy exposure existed in the National Poison Data System for the years 2000 to 2018. 392 of those cases were in people aged 13 years or old. Unsurprisingly, the group with the most adverse events was males in their teens and in their 20s. The data include 18 confirmed overdoses and 8 deaths attributable to poppyseed exposure.
Moreover, and of interest to the CSPI, the authors of the study report that rates of intentional exposure to poppy in the 13+ age group increased over the period of the study, spiking to 20 per 100,000 in 2016.
“It’s hard to believe that a food product so readily available can provide a high enough dose of opiates to kill a grown adult,” the CSPI release quotes study author and CSPI Eva Greenthal as saying. “There’s a lot more that FDA and DEA can do to prevent the needless pain and suffering caused by the sale of contaminated poppy seeds,” said Greenthal. “Without decisive action to remove contaminated products from the market, more lives could be lost to accidental overdose from poppy seed tea.”
CSPI has been calling for better regulation of poppy seeds for some time. See, for example, this release that they put out in 2019. It focuses on the death of an Arkansas man named Stephen P. Hacala. In 2016, at the age of 24, he died after ingesting poppy tea.
That release also cites other deaths from poppy tea. “Two new deaths occurred within the past few months,” it reads. “In December, a 44-year-old Utah woman passed away with poppy seeds ordered online found at the scene. And just last month a 46-year-old man died after brewing a concoction of poppy seeds and concentrated lemon juice. Shipping packages and phone records showed that he had ordered several bags of poppy seeds online.”
Our mission is to help families who have been harmed by contaminated food or water. When corporations cause food injuries, we use the law to hold them accountable. The Lange Law Firm is the only law firm in the nation solely focused on helping families in food poisoning lawsuits and contaminated water lawsuits.
If you or someone you love was injured or died as a result of poppy seed tea use and are interested in making a legal claim for compensation, we can help. Our poppy seed lawyer can help you pursue compensation for your food poisoning. Call us for a free no obligation legal consultation at (833) 330-3663 or send us an e-mail here.
By: Abigail Cossette Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)