In a joint communiqué, the Directorate-General for Competition, Consumption and Suppression of Fraud (DGCCRF) and the Directorate-General for Health said that people who had consumed the poppy seed products had ‘abnormally high levels of the alkaloids in their urine’.
Poppy seeds – harvested from the dried bulb of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) – naturally only contain trace amounts of the opiates; however, they can be contaminated from compounds in the stalk and seed capsules through poor harvesting practices or the result of pest damage.
An analysis a batch of seeds supplied to French bakeries has confirmed the high alkaloid content and authorities believe it could have been contaminated from the latex sap of the plant, which contains up to 80 alkaloids.
Who should avoid poppy seeds?
Pending the results, the two French agencies are recommending consumers to avoid eating poppy seeds in ‘significant quantities’, especially pregnant or lactating women, young children, the elderly, persons with a risk of urinary retention or at risk of breathing, and those involved in activities requiring concentration such as operating machines or driving.
Jean-Claude Alvarez, head of the toxicology department at the Raymond-Poincaré hospital in Garches, near Paris, said a single sandwich made with poppy seed bread could contain as much as 4mg of morphine, the equivalent of nearly half a tablet of morphine sulphate, which is usually prescribed for cancer patients.
“The drugs we have found [in poppy seed bread] are only supposed to be used by people in severe pain and then on top of that there is the risk of addiction,” he said.
This is not the first time such discoveries have been made from the consumption of foods containing poppy seeds.
Consumers should avoid eating poppy seeds in 'significant quantities' - France's Directorate-General for Competition, Consumption and Suppression of Fraud and Directorate-General for Health.
History of contamination
In 2017, TV presenter Angela Rippon tested positive for opiates after eating a loaf of poppy seed bread and a poppy seed bagel over the course of three days.
The septuagenarian had participated in an experiment for the program Rip Off Britain: Food.
At the time, Prof Atholl Johnston, consulting toxicology expert from the Queen Mary University in London, said the amount of morphine in a poppy seed will vary quite considerably depending on when and where it was harvested.
In 2014, the European Commission issued guidance on good practices to prevent and reduce the presence of opium alkaloids in poppy seed products.
Processing steps, such as washing, heat treatment and grinding, have been found to reduce the alkaloid content by between 25% and 100%.
In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) set a safe level of 10 mg/kg of body weight based on the morphine content of poppy seeds.
However, last year, it updated its risk assessment of opium alkaloids in poppy seeds, noting the concentration of codeine could be higher than that of morphine. Safe levels may be exceeded by consumers of large amounts of seeds or of foods containing unprocessed poppy seeds.
Side effects of excessive consumption include drowsiness, confusion, fatigue, redness of the face, itching, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, constipation and urine retention.