Almost 40 illnesses have been reported in Australia in people who consumed large amounts of poppy seeds in tea.

Australian food authorities confirmed a batch of poppy seeds not intended for food use and containing high levels of thebaine entered the supply chain. It is still not clear how this happened.

Overall, 37 cases have been recorded with 14 in New South Wales, 11 in Victoria, and seven in Queensland. Western Australia has two while South Australia, Tasmania, and the Australian Capital Territory all have one.

Thebaine is a natural chemical in poppy seeds that can be toxic in high concentrations. Poppy seeds high in thebaine are used in the production of medicines and other non-food products such as cosmetics and shampoo. It is not possible to tell which seeds have a high content by looking at them.

Poppy seeds used in tea

Some batches of poppy seeds, when brewed into a concentrated form such as tea, have resulted in severe toxicity. Patients reported poppy seed tea had an unusual dark brown color and bitter taste. 

Symptoms of poisoning can include increased respiratory rate and muscle spasms, which can progress to seizures, breathing difficulty, and unconsciousness. They usually appear within minutes to hours. 

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) announced a national recall in mid-November and has been managing the response with state and territory food authorities.

Hoyts Poppy Seeds, Gaganis Premium Australian Poppy Seed, East West Foods Wholesale Poppy Seeds, Basfoods International – Royal Fields Poppy Seeds, Freshco Foods Victoria – Uttam Khus Khus Poppy and Eumarrah Poppy Seeds are among recalled brands.

These poppy seeds were not available in New Zealand. However, in late November, Davis Trading Company recalled imported poppy seeds that were not intended for sale to the public.

Black poppy seeds from brands or stores including Davis Food Ingredients, Attitude Foods, Bin Inn, Essenté, Farm By Nature, Foodfirst, Fresh Line, Icelandic and Wholesale Foods were affected. They were sold at ethnic supermarkets, produce stores, and retail outlets throughout the country.

“Davis Trading Company sold the product directly to consumers when it was intended to be sold only to manufacturers as an ingredient for making other foods,” said Vincent Arbuckle, New Zealand Food Safety deputy director-general.

“The concern with this product is that it contains higher levels of alkaloids. There is no evidence to suggest that the product is unsafe for use in normal cooking and baking at home,” he said.

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