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Are Poppy Seeds Lawsuits Next?

Herbal teas are a growing trend.  Take this Sleepy Time chamomile tea to softly lull you to sleep, one warm cup at a time.  Get energy from a Yerba Mate tea to wake you up and get you going with your day.  How about some Hibiscus tea to help stabilize your mood?  Got a symptom?  There is a tea for that.  You can be sure of it.

Many of us too partake in the tea bandwagon.  Some enjoy thyme tea (yes, the herb you will find in your pantry) for a cough remedy or regularly use Red Raspberry Leaf tea to help with hormones.  Ginger tea with lemon and local honey is a cure-all for just about anything that ails you.  But Poppy Seed tea?  That is a whole other topic.

Poppy Seeds = Opioids?

Maybe it is the generation we grew up in, but every time we hear about poppy seeds or see it in a food product our minds drift to the Seinfeld episode (Season, 7, Episode 16, “The Shower Head”) where Elaine’s job required a drug test.  Much to her dismay, she failed that drug test.  Her results came up for opium.  Turns out, her favorite bagel, the poppy seed bagel, was responsible for her false positive.

There is a lot of “Hollywood” that goes into television shows.  Things that can’t possibly be real slipped into your favorite sitcom for entertainment purposes.  But is there truth to the poppy seed – opium connection?  Turns out there is.  And there is a movement to restrict and/or regulate its non-food application to prevent serious and even deadly consequences from this seemingly innocent ingredient.

But how does it work?  What are the risks?  Can you really fail a drug test from drinking poppy seed tea?  Are manufactures responsible for deaths?  Let’s start from the beginning.

How Does Poppy Seed Tea Work?

The seeds themselves are not the problem.  This is why the seeds used for baking are different from the ones used in these “therapeutic” teas.

The pods are where the harmful components lie.  Poppy seeds are harvested from the plant, opium poppy (Papaver somniferum).  This is the same plant that people use to manufacture opiates, such a morphine and heroin.  While the poppy seeds don’t actually contain morphine or codeine, the pods contain components that can be used to make it.  During harvest for poppies sourced for food, the “latex” or milky, white material contained in the pods used to make heroin, can be transferred onto the poppy seeds.

This is why poppy seeds intended for baking and food preparation are “washed” or cleaned to remove this harmful narcotic component.  Most of this is removed during the cleaning process, but some residue may remain.  This is why some people may experience a false positive on a drug test (in the off chance they eat a lot of poppy seeds that have not been sufficiently cleaned).  More on that later.

Some manufacturers who sell unwashed poppy seeds intended for making a poppy seed wash intentionally leave this component intact to preserve the narcotic compounds naturally found on the seed.

Companies Market Poppy Seeds for Narcotic Purposes Under Fire

Many companies, such as poppyseedwash.com have come under fire.  In fact, this particular company has been issued a warning letter from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on this unapproved drug.  Since this warning letter, the company has pulled back much of their health claims.

Now when you visit the website you can see the product explained as “a beverage, generically known as poppy seed tea.  Each bottle contains 6 ounces of special, unwashed, unprocessed, organic poppy seeds sourced specifically for strength and great taste.”

Those who are seeking the product for this purpose can definitely read between the lines.  The site also provides directions for how to prepare the beverage using their special bottle that filters out the “tea” leaving the seeds behind.

Prior to the website revamp, NBC News reported that Poppy Seed Wash was advertised as a natural alternative to opioids and used for pain relief and relaxation.  Their report indicated the site originally posted, “The opioids relax and sedate the body.”  Being more specific, it continues, “PoppySeed Wash relieves anxiety by slowing down the central nervous system and has a relaxing and calming effect on the mind and body.  Because it works quickly, it can be effective during a panic attack or another overwhelming anxiety episode.”

To make such claims, the FDA requires manufactures to go through a formal approval process.

Why is Poppy Seed Tea Dangerous?

How can something natural be dangerous?  Well, anything can be dangerous.  In fact, water can be dangerous in certain quantities.  Water intoxication is a thing.

It is a food.  Food can’t be bad.  That’s what puts it square in the middle of that gray area of whether or not the product can be sold to the public.  It is poppy seeds.  A food product found in just about any bagel shop.

“It’s sort of a gray area right now because it is a food product, so you would think that it would fall under the FDA, but it is also a Schedule II drug, so you think it might fall under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA),” says Madeleine Swortwood, PhD, assistant professor, and director of graduate programs for the Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University.  She explains, “they are marketing this for pain relief as a food product but they contain potentially lethal levels of a Schedule II drug.”

The biggest danger lies in the variability of the active components.  That, and lack of regulation.  The amounts of morphine and codeine contained in the seeds can vary from batch to batch.  So much so that someone expecting a particular dose may get more than they expected leading to potential overdose.

“The purity of the ‘active’ ingredient can vary batch to batch, and there may be dangerous contaminants.  If there is enough morphine for a drug effect, then you have the same concerns for overdose that you would for any other strong opioid,” says Edward Bilsky, PhD, provost, and chief academic officer at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Washington, and expert in opioid pharmacology.

It is this risk of overdose that has sparked this conversation and previously mentioned FDA Warning Letter.  The examples are plentiful, but one study looked at the deaths of 2 young men who died of poppy seed tea overdose.  Swortwood, co-author of the study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, reviewed these two cases to explore the effects and “quantification of morphine, codeine, and the baine in home-brewed poppy seed tea.”

Anyone can purchase unwashed poppy seeds through a variety of online retailers (such as eBay and Amazon), even still today.  “We’re really focusing on public awareness at this point,” says Swortwood.  “I’ve actually been in contact with a few physicians, especially addiction medicine physicians who are treating patients with morphine addiction from consuming poppy seed tea.  They are not heroin users, but they actually become addicted to the morphine from the tea,” she explains.

Poppy Seeds Aren’t the Only New Kids on the Block

The rise of the opioid epidemic is real.  In 2017, there were close to 50,000 deaths attributed to opioids in the United States alone.  Despite the recent charge to limit opioid prescription medications in response to the crisis, the opioid death toll marches on.

These days users have many options.  They no longer have to rely on their doctor with their fancy notepad and signature.  Many users have turned to street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, but others find less risky options.  Loperamide (an antidiarrheal agent used in high doses to generate an opioid effect) and kratom (a plant that can produce opioid effects) can be purchased over the counter or online, just like the unwashed poppy seeds used to make poppy seed tea.  These “legal” products fill the gap, providing both recreational and treatment use that they can purchase from the comfort of their home without consequence.  If you only consider jail time as the consequence.  Never mind the risk of addiction or death.  This legal status produces a false sense of safety in its users.

It can’t possibly be bad for me if I can just buy it off the Internet, right?  Think again.  While there have been no specific research findings on how much is too much for poppy seed tea, kratom, or loperamide, they are bad.  Really bad.

This lack of research is why the FDA issued a warning.  False claims and unregulated drugs are the primary reason.  Let’s take a look at what the FDA said.

FDA Issues Warning Letter – Cliff Notes

FDA Warning Letters are often long and wordy.  They are meant to provide a public and documented warning and guidance to a firm to which it is issued.  There is usually a request for response, which is also part of the public domain.  The Warning Letter of interest was addressed to Devin Michael Tew of poppyseedwash.com in South Jordan, Utah on July 12, 2018.

The Warning Letter begins with: 

This is to advise you that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reviewed your website at the Internet address http://www.poppyseedwash.com and has determined that you take orders there for the product PoppySeed Wash.  In addition, FDA reviewed your social media accounts and product label for PoppySeed Wash.  The claims on your product label and websites establish the product is a drug under section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1)(B)] because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. As explained further below, introducing or delivering this product for introduction into interstate commerce for such uses violates the Act. You can find the Act and FDA regulations through links on FDA’s home page at www.fda.gov.”

The Warning Letter indicates all of the times on the website and social media accounts where the company either explicitly or implicitly indicates that the PoppySeed Wash product is intended for use as a drug as well as all of the language that indicate an unsupported health claim.  These are all regulatory no-no’s.

In the FAQ section the company even says that PoppySeed Wash is “chemically similar” to the drugs: “Opiates: morphine, diacetylmorphine (heroin), codeine. Opioids: (opiates above, hydrocodone (lortab, norco, Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet, oxycontin), demerol, fentanyl, buprenorphine (suboxone Subutex), methadone.”

The company claims the product can provide pain relief, opioid rotation, act as a sleep aid, and can provide anxiety relief and sedation.  These medicinal uses require support from the FDA.

In addition to lack of regulatory approval and false medical claims, the label “fails to bear adequate directions for its intended use(s).”  All supplements and drugs must provide adequate directions that a layperson could understand to safely use a drug and the specific intended purposes for which someone might use it.

Additionally, the intended treatment is indicated for one or more diseases that are “not amenable to self-diagnosis or treatment without the supervision of a licensed practitioner.”

The FDA has their regulations in place and the power to enforce said regulations, but what does that poppy seed bagel mean for your drug test at work or for sports?  I did promise we would get to that before we were done here.

Poppy Seeds and Drug Testing

You might have no interest in making an opiate laced PoppySeed Wash tea, but you love your poppy seed bagel every morning for breakfast and occasionally sneak one in later in the day as a snack.  What does that mean for your surprise drug test?

Well.  According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) the key component in opium is morphine.  This is the substance that laboratories test for to determine if a sample is positive.  The level of morphine in the urine must be greater than 1.3 micrograms/mL to meet that criteria.

Some research indicates that morphine and codeine can sometimes be found in detectable amounts for up to 48 hours after consuming poppy seeds in pastries such as muffins, bagels, and cakes, despite more than 90% of the opium being removed during processing.  This all depends on how well the poppy seeds are cleaned and processed.  This can vary from country to country and even how or when the seeds were harvested.

The short answer is there is no answer.  There is no way to predict the exact amount of poppy seeds that a person can consume and not produce a positive morphine or opium result.  Even in small amounts, some bodies metabolize these compounds more slowly, allowing detectable amounts for up to a few days if poppy seeds aren’t washed properly. That means there is also no way to predict how much (or how little) a lethal dose of poppy seeds can be.

The Lange Law Firm –www.MakeFoodSafe.com

Our mission is to help families who have been harmed by contaminated or unsafe food or water.  When corporations cause food poisoning outbreaks or Legionnaires disease outbreaks, we use the law to hold them accountable.  The Lange Law Firm is the only law firm in the nation solely focused on representing families in food poisoning lawsuits and Legionnaires disease lawsuits.

If you were injured or sickened after eating poppy seeds or drinking poppy seed tea, and are interested in making a legal claim for compensation, we can help.  Call us for a free no obligation legal consultation at 833.330.366, or send us an e-mail here.

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