Poppy Seeds and Drug Testing: False Positives?

January 11th, 2005 by

Many employers are aggressively testing job applicants and employees for drug use. According to a brief article in today’s New York Times (registration required), it is now scientifically proven that poppy seeds can cause false positives for opiate abuse. Poppy seeds come from the same plant that produces heroin.
Arnahad O’Connor points out that “eating a couple of bagels heavily coated with poppy seeds can result in morphine in a person’s system for hours, leading a routine drug test to come back positive.” However, the amount of opiates in the bloodstream is far lower than if the individual is abusing pain killers. Indeed, you cannot get high, no matter how many bagels you eat! IN response to the issue of false positives, the federal government recently raised the threshold for opiates in workplace testing, to 2,000 nanograms a milliliter, up from 300. Under the new standard, eating three large poppy seed bagels could push a person over the 300 threshold, but not the 2000.
For a less serious take on this issue, we recommend the amusing summary in Straight Dope. And for the definitive history, check out Snopes.com. According to this posting, written by Barbara Mikkelson, the issue began back in 1990, when a police officer was suspended for four months because his drug test showed positive for morphine. He had eaten four (!) poppy seed bagels the day before the urine sample was taken. He was subsequently reinstated with back pay after it was determined that poppy seeds — not drug use — had produced those results. (Let’s hope the officer received some nutrition counseling!)
Mikkelson also points out that furloughed prisoners from the federal prison system must agree in writing not to eat any products containing poppy seeds while in half-way houses or while on probation. I wonder if this requirement will be eliminated, given the above change in federal drug standards.
The utility and justice of drug testing is well beyond the scope of today’s blog. But it is worth noting that a poppy seeded bagel with cream cheese, or a nice slice of poppy seed cake, will no longer put your employment in jeopardy. Happy eating!