EFSA assesses public health risks of opium alkaloids in poppy seeds

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published a scientific opinion concluding that consumption of food containing poppy seeds could represent a health concern for some consumers. The Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM), however, highlighted the uncertainties in assessing the opium alkaloid intake from poppy seeds in foods due to the limited data on consumption and levels present in food. Poppy seeds do not naturally contain opium alkaloids; however, they may be contaminated with the sap of the poppy plant as a result of pest or harvesting damage. The opinion also states that food processing may decrease the opium alkaloid content present in poppy seeds by up to about 90%.

The CONTAM Panel noted that there are few reports of adverse effects arising from the traditional consumption of poppy seeds; however it cannot be assumed that such reactions do not occur from time to time. Morphine-like effects have been observed in humans following consumption of a single portion of a meal containing opium alkaloid-contaminated poppy seeds. The Panel’s scientific experts considered it appropriate therefore to base their risk assessment for poppy seeds on exposure to morphine, which is the most common opium alkaloid found in poppy seeds. The Panel established a health-based guidance value, known as the Acute Reference Dose (ARfD), of 10 μg morphine per kg of body weight, based on the lowest known oral therapeutic dose of morphine. The Panel considered this to represent the intake level above which food containing opium alkaloid-contaminated poppy seeds could be a health concern.

An exact picture of the consumption of food containing poppy seeds across the EU is currently not available as many countries do not provide specific consumption data or take into account high seasonal consumption. Estimates of exposure were therefore derived from recipes, analyses of poppy seeds and analyses of some food products. The Panel found that consumers of foods containing large amounts of poppy seeds are likely to exceed the ARfD on at least some eating occasions. In addition, if poppy seeds are consumed as a condiment or decoration in bread and fine bakery ware, some consumers, particularly young children, could also on rare occasions exceed the ARfD. The opinion also states that food processing techniques such as washing, soaking, grinding and cooking may reduce the alkaloid content of poppy seeds.

The CONTAM Panel recommends that more data are collected on: levels of opium alkaloids in food products; the varieties of poppy seeds that are available on the European market for food use and their alkaloid content; as well as consumption of foods containing poppy seeds. In addition, the Panel stated that further work in this area should focus not only on morphine, but also on the other alkaloids reported to be present.

The main opium alkaloid in poppy seeds is morphine with lower levels of codeine, thebaine, noscapine and papaverine. The most prominent side effects associated with the medical use of morphine and codeine are sleepiness and breathing difficulties.

The opium poppy is cultivated primarily for medical uses, but its seeds are also used in food in many European Union (EU) countries. In some Central-Eastern European Countries, it is traditional to use poppy seeds widely in foods, including in high amounts in bread, fine bakery ware and desserts. Unground poppy seeds are sometimes used as a condiment or decoration in food.

Notes to editors

The Acute Reference Dose of a chemical is an estimate of the amount of a substance in food and/or drinking water, normally expressed on a body-weight basis, that can be ingested in a period of 24 hours or less without appreciable health risk to the consumer on the basis of all known facts at the time of the evaluation (JMPR, 2002).

Opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, is a medicinal plant grown for the opium alkaloids extracted from the dried milky latex of the seed capsules. These opium alkaloids include the narcotic agents morphine and codeine that have been used by man for the treatment of severe pain for generations both in pharmaceutical products and in herbal remedies. The opium alkaloids are present in the latex of the poppy plant, which permeates all parts of the plant, except the seeds.

Media contacts