Congress introduces Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act to combat poppy seed contamination, overdose risks

Bills introduced to Congress aim to prohibit the sale of unsafe poppy seeds, following the death of a young man who died from morphine overdose after consuming poppy seeds.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing writer

December 11, 2023

3 Min Read
poppy seeds

At a Glance

  • S.3354 and H.R.6512 were introduced to Congress on Nov. 29 with the intent of prohibiting the sale of unsafe poppy seeds.
  • The bills are named after Stephen Hacala Jr., a 24-year-old man who died from morphine overdose after consuming poppy seeds.
  • Poppy seed contamination is observed in various foods, and warnings have been issued from the Department of Defense.

Prohibiting the sale of unsafe poppy seeds is the intent of bills introduced to Congress on Nov. 29. S.3354 was introduced by Arkansas Sens. Tom Cotton, Richard Blumenthal and John Boozman. Fellow statesman and Rep. Steve Womack introduced a companion bill, H.R.6512. According to Boozman’s press release, as many as 20 Americans have reportedly died from overdoses caused by morphine-laced poppy seeds sold directly to consumers.

The bills collectively are known as the Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act, named after a 24-year-old man found dead in his Arkansas apartment in 2016. Accidental morphine intoxication was revealed as the cause of death. No morphine was found in his apartment, though a 5-pound bag of unwashed poppy seeds and a 33-ounce bottle containing rinsed poppy seeds were found onsite.

The young man’s father filed a suit against the poppy seed suppliers, Sincerely Nuts Inc. and Amazon. The poppy seeds, Mr. Hacala said, were consumed in tea as a sleep aid. A motion to dismiss was granted to the suppliers in 2019, as Arkansas law provides recovery for financial loss, not for loss of life.

An article in the “Journal of Analytical Toxicology” addressed the hazards of poppy tea ingestion by focusing on four postmortem cases. “There is limited information regarding the risks of this practice due to the variability of the morphine content of the opium exuded from the plant,” the authors wrote. “While internet tea recipes offer guidance, differences in poppy cultivation washing and infusing time are some of the reasons why the beverage may contain inconsistent and clinically significant alkaloid concentrations for each preparation.”

The mix of alkaloids within the seed capsule contains morphine, codeine, papaverine, noscapine, thebaine and laudanosine. The seeds themselves, however, are only alkaloid-free if the sap is removed by washing and drying.

Commercially, poppy seeds are used in a variety of foods, including dressings, cakes, muffins and bagels. The use of lemon poppy seed cake and poppy seed salad dressing in military dining facilities has recently been suspended.

In February 2023, Department of Defense posted a warning. “Recent data suggests certain poppy seed  varieties may have higher codeine contamination than previously reported,” Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in the memo. “Consumption of poppy seed products could cause a codeine-positive urinalysis result and undermine the department’s ability to identify illicit drug use.”

The notion of drug contamination in poppy seeds is not new. A 1996 episode of Seinfeld linked Elaine’s consumption of poppy seed muffins to a positive drug test for opium.

Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) supports the Stephen Hacala Poppy Seed Safety Act. In 2021, the organization submitted a petition to FDA requesting the limits be set for seeds. Earlier, it asked FDA and Department of Justice to jointly clarify to industry and retailers that unwashed poppy seeds are illegal. CSPI urged FDA and DEA to conduct random sampling and testing of poppy seeds offered for sale by online retailers and at border posts, and to prioritize inspections of poppy seed distributors.

Other supporters of the bill include nonprofits Association of Food and Drug Officials, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, National Center for Health Research and Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

Sen. Cotton attributed Stephen Hacala Jr.’s death to “a dangerous gap in our nation’s drug laws.” He said, “Despite government warnings, unwashed poppy seeds, which can contain lethal doses of morphine, are still available for sale online and entering our food supply.”

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing writer

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

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