Australians are being warned not to drink poppy seed tea, promoted on popular social media platforms, after a spate of poisoning cases across Australia linked to the home-brewed sedative.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand has issued a national recall of poppy seeds due to the potential presence of high levels of thebaine – an opioid alkaloid. The elevated levels of thebaine has been caused by non-food grade poppy seeds incorrectly entering the human food supply chain.
There have been about 32 cases of poppy seed toxicity reported in Australia over the past month, all in adults who drank poppy seed tea.
Information about “herbal” sedative teas, including poppy seeds, is disseminated online. One TikTok viewed by Guardian Australia promoting poppy seed tea has been viewed over 121,000 times since it was posted in May of this year.
But Ian Musgrave, senior lecturer of pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, said people used the tea as a sedative – though it is mostly a placebo.
“People like it because it’s home-brew remedy, which makes them feel relaxed, and it can have mild pain relief effects,” he said.
“But poppy seed tea is one of those things where I think it has more of a placebo effect than anything else.”
Investigations are currently under way to determine how the wrong seeds got into the supply chain, but until it was safe Musgrave said people should avoid drinking the tea.
“I would very definitely lay off the poppy seed tea for the moment,” he said.
The Victoria Department of Health has reported 11 cases of patients experiencing symptoms including rapid heartbeat, hypertension, stiff muscles and limbs, and seizures after consuming poppy seed tea, with reports of patients using up to 1kg of poppy seeds in their home brews.
In New South Wales, at least 12 people have required medical attention due to poisoning linked to poppy seed consumption.
Michael Lindsay, Western Australia Health’s director of environmental health, said they had also seen cases of poisoning.
“We are urging people who have consumed large quantities of poppy seeds, particularly in poppy seed tea, and who experience any unusual and severe symptoms to seek immediate medical attention by attending an emergency department or calling triple zero for emergency assistance,” Lindsay said.
“Anyone who drinks poppy seed tea should be aware of the significant risk of consumption and note that an unusual dark brown colour and bitter taste in the tea after brewing may indicate unusual toxicity.”
Food Standards state there have also been cases of poppy-seed linked illness in Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
The affected brands so far include Hoyts Poppy Seeds – sold nationally at Coles and Woolworths supermarkets – as well as Gaganis Premium Australian Poppy Seeds, poppy seeds by East West Foods Wholesale Pty Ltd, and Royal Fields Poppy Seeds.
The onset of poisoning symptoms can occur within minutes of consuming affected poppy seeds, according to the Victoria Department of Health.
Authorities say consumers should not consume the affected products, and should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund and safe disposal.
The Victoria Department of Health has warned there is a “significant risk” of consuming poppy seeds in concentrated forms, such as in home-brewed tea. An “unusual dark brown colour and bitter taste” in the tea after brewing may indicate “unusual toxicity”.
There have been no reported toxic effects linked to consuming small amounts of poppy seeds, such as in baking, however investigations are ongoing.
Assoc prof Darren Roberts, medical director of the NSW Poisons Information Centre, said the affected products were not safe to eat or drink, as the presence of thebaine can be dangerous.
“We are urging anyone who experiences any unusual and severe symptoms to seek immediate medical attention by visiting their nearest emergency department. Call triple zero for emergency assistance.”