The truth about poppy seeds and drug testing

Jul 16, 2019

Although it may seem highly unlikely that eating a poppy seed muffin or a bagel with poppy seeds could make you test positive for opiates when taking a drug test if you are not a drug user, the results of scientific studies say otherwise.

Commercially-available poppy seeds are collected from the seed pods of opium poppies, and although they are cleaned before used in foods, they can still contain traces of morphine from contamination with opium milk. Although these quantities of morphine present are not enough to produce mind-altering effects, they can make you get red flagged when taking a highly-sensitive drug test.

In recent years workplace drug testing has become common, and is often used by employers in industries where workers operate heavy machinery, or with jobs where performance has a significant impact on public safety, or simply jobs that are safety-sensitive in nature. According to the findings of scientific peer-reviewed studies, foods containing poppy seeds can contribute to positive opiate urinalysis results. One study showed that ingestion of poppy seed streusel or Danish pastries resulted in confirmed morphine and codeine positive specimens. Another research study showed that consuming cake made with commercially-available poppy seeds caused positive results when study participants were tested for morphine and codeine. The results of these studies indicate that eating a few slices of poppy seed cake or pastries could result in testing positive up to 48 hours later with a testing threshold for opiates from 0.3 micrograms per millilitre.

There are unfortunately a number of anecdotal stories with regard to this happening such as that of Elizabeth Eden, a mother from Maryland. Elizabeth consumed a poppy seed bagel the morning before going into labour and then while delivering her baby at the hospital, she tested positive for opiates. Due to state laws, the positive test meant that her baby was required to stay at the hospital and be monitored for five days and she was also assigned a state case worker for a home checkup. Her case was eventually closed when it became clear what had occurred.

Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of a woman in 2010 who had her newborn daughter taken away for 5 days by child welfare services after eating a poppy seed bagel and failing a drug test. According to the union, the hospital where the woman was tested used a threshold which was significantly lower than the one required by the US federal government, and also failed to ask the woman whether she had consumed anything which could affect the results. The hospital provided a settlement in 2013 of $143,500 and changed its policies regarding opiate testing thresholds.

In another case in New York, Eleazer Paz, a jail guard working for The New York City Department of Corrections was suspended from duty in 2016 after testing positive for morphine and codeine in a random urine test. When the case went to trial, the judge made the conclusion that “the most likely source of the positive morphine and codeine test results was the ingestion of poppy seeds and not the use of medications,” and recommended the case be dismissed. The Department of Corrections still fired Paz; however, he had appealed his firing with the City Service Commission, and the panel had reinstated him in 2018.

At the moment, scientific studies have not yet identified how many poppy seeds need to be eaten in order to test positive for opiates. According to information provided on the website of the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the amount “depends on how well the poppy seeds are cleaned and processed, which varies depending on the country the seeds are from and how and when they were harvested.” The USADA website instructs athletes with the following message: “It may be possible to exceed the morphine threshold by eating foods with poppy seeds and USADA can’t predict how long morphine or morphine metabolites from poppy seeds will stay in your system. The most conservative approach would be to avoid poppy seeds a few days before and during competitions.”

In an interview with CBC News, Dr. Peter Selby, chief of medicine and psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said that testing positive for opiates after consuming poppy seed-containing food products has been an ongoing issue for the last 25 years. “The poppy plant is where we get opiates, which are the naturally occurring chemicals in medications like codeine and morphine… [Whether you test positive] depends on how contaminated the poppy seeds are, [how well they were cleaned and processed], how many you consume and how concentrated your urine is at the time of testing. It’s not enough to say if you only eat five seeds you’ll be fine because all of these reasons can result in a positive test,” he said.