EFSA has raised concern over morphine exposure through the consumption of poppy seeds used in food products.
Besides the medical importance of opium poppy, the seeds of the plant are of importance as food. Poppy seed consumption varies broadly within the EU but the mature seeds are used predominantly in baked goods, as an ingredient in composite dishes or sprinkled on top of a food, or the seeds can be used to prepare hot beverages.
Because of their high oil content, edible oil is also produced from the seeds.
Morphine exposure risk assessment
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was mandated by the Commission to provide a scientific opinion on the risks for public health related to the presence of opium alkaloids in poppy seeds intended for human consumption.
The Parma-based agency said that following a call for data in October last year, it has reviewed results from analyses of opium alkaloids, primarily morphine, codeine, thebaine, papaverine and noscapine, in samples of poppy seeds, bakery products and baking ingredients.
Based on the relative prevalence of the alkaloids present in poppy seed and food samples analysed, and on their pharmacological potency, its Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) said the risk assessment could be based on dietary exposure to morphine alone.
The experts said they applied an uncertainty factor of 3 to establish from the lowest known single oral therapeutic dose of 30 µg morphine/kg body weight (b.w.) an acute reference dose (ARfD) of 10 μg morphine/kg b.w.
They concluded that estimates of dietary exposure to morphine from foods containing poppy seed show the ARfD can be exceeded during a single serving by some consumers, particularly children, across the EU.
“A considerable proportion of consumers of foods that contain large amounts of poppy seeds, such as are common in Central-Eastern European countries, are likely to exceed the ARfD for morphine on at least some eating occasions,” notes the Panel.
Adverse health effects
Consumption of foods containing poppy seeds that are contaminated with opium alkaloids, reports EFSA, can lead to adverse health effects and to detectable contents of free morphine in blood as well as measurable concentrations in urine, sufficient to interfere with drug abuse testing.
There are currently no EU regulations relating to alkaloids in poppy seeds used in food, although Hungary has national maximum levels of 30 mg/kg for morphine, 20 mg/kg for noscapine, 40 mg/kg for morphine and noscapine, 20 mg/kg for thebaine and 20 mg/kg for codeine.
EFSA added that although alkaloids in poppy seeds occur naturally only in traces, studies on alkaloid levels in edible poppy seeds have revealed that the levels vary markedly and have increased overall in recent years. Types of poppy, harvesting time and geographical origin could all influence the alkaloid levels, it adds.
But the EU risk assessor added that the alkaloid content of poppy seed samples and poppy seed containing foods can be reduced by several methods of pre-treatment and processing, with such methods potentially able to cut such content by up to about 90%. The most effective methods include washing, soaking and heat treatments, as well as grinding and combinations of these treatments, added the EU agency.