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A New Mother Failed a Drug Test After Eating a Poppy Seed Bagel. Here’s How That Happens

4 minute read

A Maryland woman who tested positive for opiates while giving birth to her daughter in April has thrust the “poppy seed bagel defense” back into the spotlight.

“I was in labor. I was sitting in the bed. I was having contractions. I was on a Pitocin drip, and the doctor came in and said, ‘You’ve tested positive for opiates,'” Elizabeth Eden told WBAL TV11.

Eden, who had eaten a poppy seed bagel that morning, says she remembered hearing that poppy seeds — which come from opium poppies — can lead to false positives on drug tests, and told the doctor about her breakfast choice. She told WBAL that her request to be retested was denied, and that she was reported to the state.

As a result, her daughter, Beatrice, was required to stay in the hospital for five days, and a case worker was assigned to monitor Eden’s behavior. The case worker eventually closed Eden’s file, but the new mother called the experience “traumatizing,” WBAL reports.

Traumatizing though it may have been, however, Eden isn’t alone. Here’s a quick history of the poppy seed bagel defense.

Why do poppy seeds make people fail drug tests?

Opium, heroin, codeine and morphine all come from opium poppies. While poppy seeds do not actually contain any of these substances, they can become tainted with morphine during the harvesting process, according to Brittanica. In some cases, the morphine residue on the seeds, while not enough to create a high, is enough to throw off the results of a drug test, research shows.

How many poppy seeds affect a drug test?

The amount of morphine residue on poppy seeds varies depending on the country in which they were grown, the harvesting and cleaning process and other factors, making it difficult to predict exactly how many will result in a false positive. But plenty of people have seen surprising results after eating a single poppy seed bagel, muffin or other pastry, and research has shown that urine levels may remain elevated for up to two days after consumption.

For years, a morphine test was considered positive if it showed levels above 300 nanograms per millimeter. But, in part due to the number of people receiving false positives after eating poppy seeds, today most organizations look for levels of 2,000 or above, as recommended by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The hospital where Eden gave birth, however, was still using the more stringent testing specifications, WBAL reports.

Does the “poppy seed bagel defense” work in court?

The defense — made famous by an episode of Seinfeld — has worked in instances where the defendant can prove that they ate a product containing poppy seeds, and passes subsequent drug screens.

In 2013, a Pennsylvania woman who had her newborn daughter taken away by the state after eating a poppy seed bagel and failing a hospital drug test won $143,500 in court. The following year, the same county paid out $160,000 after a woman who ate poppy seeds in a pasta salad and failed a drug test lost her newborn for 75 days.

But an ongoing case proves the issue isn’t always so cut-and-dry. A New York City jail guard who failed a urine test after he says he ate a poppy seed bagel was suspended from his job in 2016, the Washington Post reports. He passed subsequent drug tests, and when his case went to court this spring, the Post reports, the judge recommended that disciplinary action against the guard be dismissed. But the Department of Corrections moved to fire the guard anyway, the New York Post reports.

What should you do if you need to take a drug test?

Since there’s so much ambiguity around poppy seeds and drug screening, the safest thing is to avoid them if you know you’ll need to take a test. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency recommends this conservative approach to athletes before competition. And in a blog post, the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens also recommends abstaining. “They can be a tasty treat in favorite foods, but may be one to avoid before undergoing drug testing,” the post says. “Keep things simple: Try an onion bagel instead.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com