Science: Eating a bagel can be bad for your criminal record: Patrick Matthews discovered how poppy seeds confuse drug-testing equipment

This is not quite Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but it is the story of how I became a suspected drug-abuser, and thus potentially unemployable, after I went to my local bakery in north London and bought two poppy-seeded bagels for lunch.

Next day I held in my hand a strip of paper resembling a printout from a supermarket till. It said 'OPIA + POS' and recorded the level of opiates detected in my urine. 'That'll be morphine: more than one milligram per litre of urine,' said Graham Ball, a clinical pathologist at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. 'On the way we screen drug abusers I'd have no hesitation in saying that's very clearly positive.'

The poppy seeds used by bakers carry traces from the opium poppy's seed capsule. These contain morphine, though not so that you would notice. The trace is enough, however, to give rise to a damning entry in the personnel file.

For the past two months the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), which represents workers in the North Sea oil and gas industries, has been dealing with just such a case involving one of its members.

Kevin Smith (not his real name) had been offered work by Amec Offshore Developments on the Tiffany oil production platform. His offer was conditional on passing an overdue annual offshore medical check-up. Opiates were detected first by Aberdeen Industrial Doctors, a practice that specialises in medical examinations for the offshore industry, and confirmed by Aberdeen Royal Infirmary using high-resolution Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry equipment.

Aberdeen Industrial Doctors asked Kevin whether he had taken any codeine- or morphine-based medicines which might give rise to a misleading result. They did not mention poppy seeds. A spokesman for the practice pointed out that to ask might provide a ready-made excuse for drug abusers.

Kevin was shocked and angry: 'When Amec told me there was morphine in my sample I just couldn't believe it. I spent three months unemployed. I ended up skint.'

He consulted the OILC and was referred to the union's solicitors, who did not consider he had any legal comeback. Some weeks later, he says, he stumbled on a magazine article about a farm which grew poppies for both the pharmaceutical industry and for bakeries, and returned to the OILC offices.

'The lad came back with this theory about poppy-seed bread,' said Ronnie McDonald, the OILC general secretary. 'He's engaged to a girl in Banff up the coast, and he'd eaten this poppy-seed bread from a wee corner shop.'

Mr McDonald submitted samples to Aberdeen Industrial Doctors taken before and after eating poppy-seed bread from the same shop. Sure enough, the second sample was positive. He said: 'It all sounds a bit prankish, but there's a very serious issue involved - particularly as random testing is becoming such a feature of our industry.'

Drug testing is now commonplace, and not only in the oil industry. Some find the trend disturbing. 'We are unhappy at the lack of legal safeguards for those at risk of losing a job because of these tests,' said Connor Foley, of Liberty, the former National Council for Civil Liberties. 'These programmes are operating without any proper legislative framework.'

Test samples are first screened on the relatively inexpensive Emit system. This is loaded with chemical reagents which detect most drugs, and gives a near instant result. A positive result goes to a hospital lab for more detailed analysis.

In the case of a suspected heroin user, Emit will simply register opiates, whereas further analysis can give a full list, including morphine, codeine and a substance only found after heroin use called 6-monoacetyl morphine (6-MAM).

In the United States, but not in Britain, it is standard practice to test specifically for 6-MAM, regarded as conclusive evidence of heroin use. The argument against the test is that 6-MAM disappears as soon as six hours after taking heroin, breaking down into compounds also found in the urine of the eater of poppy-seed bread.

So what can the analysts do when they find opiates but no 'smoking gun' evidence of heroin? Brian Widdop, laboratory director at the National Poisons Unit, carried out large amounts of contract work for Medscreen, one of the largest drug testing companies. 'A company must refer the case to a medical review officer,' he said. 'Does the individual have a history of heroin use? The doctor should discuss it with that individual. There are all sorts of visible signs with drug abuse, and doctors have to use medical know-how and nous.'

Lindsay Hadfield, a Medscreen spokesman, said that a properly conducted drug screening programme must place as much emphasis on reviewing results as on analysis. Medscreen offers courses to medical review officers, but companies are not obliged to sign up for them.

British Rail, a client of Medscreen, recently detected opiates in the urine of one of its staff. He claimed to have eaten poppy seeds. A full medical review followed and the defence was accepted - not surprisingly, as the man was in his fifties and entirely respectable.

Doubtless a young man of counter-cultural appearance would also have received justice. But it is difficult not to feel uneasy about the power put in the hands of doctors - and the authority conferred on machines that can't tell smack from seeded rolls.

Life and Style
life
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
Environment
environmentCrop pests are 'grave threat to global food security'
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash
tvSimon Cowell blasts BBC for breaking 'gentlemen's agreement' in scheduling war
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
News
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
people
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballAnd Liverpool are happy despite drawing European champions
News
i100
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Calling all science teachers! Ra...

Technology Teacher - Food & Textiles

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Food Tech/Textiles Teacher We ...

Head of Marketing (Online & Offline, Media, Digital, Strategy)

£85000 - £100000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Marketing - Slough, Berkshi...

Humanities Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities, Religious Education ...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone