A man who has been seeking changes to U.S. law since his son died from morphine intoxication in 2016 expects to see bills filed in April. His son wasn’t using drugs. It was unwashed poppy seeds, bought on Amazon.com and brewed as tea, that killed him.

The draft legislation expected to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in early April. It would establish the definition of unwashed poppy seeds as “poppy seeds that have not been processed to adequately remove poppy straw, latex, or other contaminants that may contribute to levels of morphine, codeine, or other compounds that pose a potential risk to health.”   

If approved by Congress and signed into law by the president, the Act will make unwashed poppy seeds an adulterant, meaning it would be illegal to sell them or any foods or beverages that contain them.

Steve Hacala is pleased about the movement on Capitol Hill. He was similarly pleased when Walmart pulled unwashed poppy seeds from it’s shelves after his son’s death. He’s not pleased that online entities such as Amazon continue to sell various brands of unwashed poppy seeds. The seeds’ labels make a variety unfounded claims about health benefits.

Investigators determined those labeling claims were behind the death of Stephen Patrick Hacala Jr.  

“Law enforcement authorities were confounded by the cause of death. There was no evidence of trauma and no evidence of drugs in Stephen’s apartment. The presence, however, of a partially used five-pound bag of poppy seeds and a water bottle containing some of the wet seeds raised suspicion,” according to a letter U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton sent to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in Aug. 2018.

“Upon further review and research of Stephen’s Amazon.com purchases of poppy seeds, it was later determined that the unwashed poppy seeds killed Stephen. Stephen had purchased the seeds in order to make so-called poppy seed tea, presumably to achieve the calming effect that Amazon.com online reviews explain to online consumers. An autopsy revealed that Stephen in fact died from morphine intoxication.” 

The timing of the action in the U.S. capital coincidently comes as French officials are warning the public there to not consume baguettes and ready-made sandwiches made with poppy seed bread.  

The officials issued the alert after employees at French companies tested positive for opiates. The workers were adamant that they hadn’t taken any drugs, according to news reports. Tests confirmed poppy seeds in bread they had eaten contained particularly high amounts of alkaloids. 

The road to the rule of law

In April 2018 the elder Hacala and his wife Betty traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with FDA officials. The couple urged the officials to crackdown on poppy seed sales. 

In July 2018 Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge wrote to executives of several online sales operations, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, urging them to remove unwashed poppy seeds from their offerings. As of March 15 this year, unwashed poppy seeds continue to be available on Amazon and other websites. 

In August 2018 Rutledge wrote to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration asking that the agency adopt regulations requiring poppy seeds to be labeled according to their “potentially harmful contents and to prohibit the sale of poppy seeds that contain controlled substances.”

“Poppy seeds are sometimes used as an ingredient in baking products in the United States. Washed and prepared in the proper way, they are appropriate for consumption,” Rutledge said in the letter to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

“If sold ‘unwashed,’ however, the seeds have the potential to cause unexpected intoxication, illness, and death. This is because the opium poppy plant contains a latex at the point where poppy seeds are extracted. This latex also contains morphine, codeine, and thebaine — all deadly controlled substances. When prepared for consumption, poppy seeds are washed and processed in order to remove trace amounts of these substances from the seeds. But in the unwashed, natural, or raw state, the poppy seeds are dangerous.”

The variable toxicity of unwashed poppy seeds combined with the internet have made for a dangerous situation for consumers around the world, Bill Marler said. One pot of tea made from the seeds might not have any negative effect, but the next one could kill you.

“Amazon is still selling this stuff. Essentially a Schedule 1 drug is being sold over the counter,” said Marler, who has specialized in representing victims of food poisoning since the deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak traced to Jack in the Box hamburgers.

Editor’s note: Seattle attorney Bill Marler is a founding member of Marler Clark LLP and publisher of Food Safety News.

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