The Dark Side of Poppy Seeds: Potential Opiate Contamination

Pear in Mind: A Blog in the Public Interest

Hacala family
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On April 3rd, 2016, the Hacala family’s world shattered with a simple knock on the door. On this seemingly average Sunday, a police officer informed Steve and Betty Hacala that their son, Stephen Patrick Hacala Jr., had died unexpectedly in his apartment at the age of 24. Devastated, they anxiously awaited the autopsy and toxicology reports only to discover the cause of his death was a morphine overdose. They were completely shocked and confused; there was no evidence of heroin or prescription opioids in Stephen’s apartment, which left a mystery they made it their mission to solve.

Like many young people, Stephen struggled with depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Steve and Betty now believe that Stephen used poppy seed tea to help combat these issues. Poppy seed tea is commonly cited online as a remedy for insomnia, anxiety, opioid withdrawal, and pain. This ‘tea’ relies on extraction of natural opioid compounds from poppy seeds. 

Poppy seeds come from the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum, and normally contain negligible amounts of opiates. Other parts of the poppy plant like the straw and latex in the seed pod, however, contain potentially high amounts of opiate compounds like codeine and morphine that can cause intoxication. Opium poppy plant parts, with the exception of the seeds, are classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as Schedule II Controlled Substances. Seeds can become contaminated with these opiates during harvesting and processing.

People may use contaminated poppy seeds unintentionally in food preparation, but many may use them purposefully to provide claimed health benefits or even intoxication. The consumption of contaminated seeds, whether by those seeking the intoxication or by unwitting consumers, can lead to positive drug tests, unintentional intoxication, overdose, and even death.

Poppy seeds sold in the U.S. are sometimes heavily contaminated with opiates. Researchers in a 2018 study purchased batches of seeds online and found that “regardless of extraction conditions, lethal amounts of morphine can be rinsed from poppy seed coats by home-brewing methods.”

Stephen is one of at least 19 individuals since 2010 who have lost their lives from poppy in the U.S., most from drinking poppy seed tea. 

By telling Stephen’s story in the below video, Steve and Betty are working to raise awareness about contaminated poppy seeds and the dangers they can pose. Together with the CSPI and other families affected by contaminated seeds, the Hacalas submitted a petition to the Food and Drug Administration asking for new regulation and action to better ensure the safety of poppy seeds. 

In Steve’s words, “we honor his memory by trying to save other people and raise awareness to this issue.” Help support their efforts by commenting on the petition to the FDA.

This blog post was co-authored by James Kincheloe, Food Safety Campaign Manager, and Connor Eichenwald, Food Safety Intern.