In a press release published in December of 2020, CSQ announced they have added a new licensed certification body to the program: QIMA/WQS, which is a provider of independent third-party certification, inspection, and training services for the food industry.
The CSQ program is marketed as the world’s first cannabis certification to meet GFSI criteria, which is expected to get benchmarked in 2022.
The CSQ scheme is built on four standards:
Growing and Cultivation of Cannabis Plants
Manufacturing and Extraction of Cannabis
Manufacturing and Infusion of Cannabis into Food & Beverage Products
Manufacturing of Cannabis Dietary Supplements
The first CSQ certifications are expected to be awarded this month. Being a licensed certification body for the CSQ program means QIMA/WQS will conduct document evaluations as well as on-site inspections to ensure companies are meeting the CSQ standards prior to certification.
“At QIMA WQS, we see an enormous potential to support and provide quality certification to the entire cannabis supply chain. Joining CSQ and its innovative approach is an exciting step into the diversification of our services and growth,” says Mario Berard, CEO of QIMA/WQS.
Private labelling, or white labelling, is a popular option for brands looking to enter the CBD space. This practice is where a product is manufactured by one company but branded, marketed and sold by another.
There are several companies that specialize in manufacturing end-to-end finished CBD products. They commonly provide third-party test results, certificates and data to verify the purity and potency of products created. Technically, all new brands need to do is place their label on the package and start selling! However with any new venture, establishing a successful private label CBD brand will inevitably mean various challenges need to be overcome.
Securing Quality Sources of CBD
Finding the right partners to work with is a must. The best way to source credible and trustworthy suppliers and manufacturers is to look for certifications and audits from third-party agencies. These include the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), the Safe Quality Food (SQF), the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic certification program and others.
The USDA organic certification program is a rigorous multi-step audit process to increase supply chain sustainability. Organic certification is a form of elective, self-regulation for manufacturers which consumers have eagerly welcomed into the marketplace. Look for the USDA organic seal to help identify which manufacturers are trustworthy and can produce a range of organic products.
From a consumer perspective, certifying your products as organic is an additional way to provide both supply chain transparency and increase confidence when trying new CBD products. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency they provide with pure and natural ingredients.
Creating a Unique Product
Innovation and creativity will continue to be important differentiators due to the highly competitive nature of the CBD marketplace. New ingredient innovations such as water dispersible materials are big game-changers. From chewing gum to energy drinks, the opportunities for new and unique CBD products under your own private label are limitless.
There are only a handful of CBD brands who are willing, or even able, to be certified organic today. USDA certification is an opportunity for brands looking to adapt to changing consumer preferences, diversify their product offerings and invest in supply chain transparency.
In the past, product differentiators involved third-party lab testing or providing COAs — today that’s just industry standard. The USDA organic seal is becoming one of the hemp industry’s most coveted certifications because it is a product differentiator.
Trustworthiness, transparency and traceability are important factors for consumers to consider when shopping for products. These factors should also be considered when producing products and while vetting vendors, partners, stakeholders and supply chain suppliers.
Credible certifications allow consumers to make informed decisions while feeling confident that they are purchasing products from reputable sources. Research has shown that today’s CBD market lacks credibility while consumers are desperately seeking comfort and are eager to purchase from trustworthy brands.
Last week, Allay Consulting announced a new hire, a previous cannabis regulator for the city of Denver. Kara Lavaux has earned her Certified Professional-Food Safety (CP-FS) certification and supervised the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment’s cannabis program before joining Allay Consulting.
“Demand is increasing for compliance assistance in the industry,” says Kim Stuck, CEO and founder of Allay Consulting. “Kara brings a robust background as a pioneer for cannabis public health regulations. With the hemp market gearing up for federal regulation, this was the ideal time to expand our team.”
“As one of the first Marijuana Specialists in the nation, I wanted to stay in the cannabis industry,” says Lavaux. “Joining the Allay team allows me to utilize my regulatory knowledge to support hemp and cannabis companies and help them thrive.”
Lavaux brings more than 14 years of experiences as a regulator in Colorado, with six years of experience overseeing the cannabis program.
Since Arizona legalized medical cannabis in 2011 , regulators have not required testing for cannabis products. That is about to change in a little more than a month.
After a long and hard-fought battle by patients and stakeholders in the Arizona cannabis industry, Governor Ducey signed SB1494 into law last year, a bill that requires independent labs to test cannabis products for contaminants. More specifically, the bill requires that cannabis products be tested “to determine unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed.”
Ryan Treacy, CEO/Founder of C4 Labs and co-founder of the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), has been a vocal advocate for mandatory product safety testing since 2016. After several failed lobbying attempts and forming the ACLA with three other labs in Arizona, SB1494 finally passed in May of 2019.
Under this bill, the Arizona Department of Health Services has been in charge of building the new laboratory regulations. Those rules include certifying and regulating labs, establishing requirements like health and safety protocols, mandatory quality assurance program and standards, chain of custody and sampling policies, adequate records, accreditation, proficiency testing, among other requirements.
In a press release published by Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation (PJLA), they announced that C4 Laboratories was accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 this week, in time for the new requirement in Arizona.
According to Treacy, the Department of Health Services is still in the process of finalizing the technical accreditation for labs in the state. He says C4 Labs will be ready to accept compliance samples in the coming weeks. “There will no doubt be a flood of samples and a lot will be asked of the lab operators to continue to build their business to better accommodate sample volume,” says Treacy. They want to minimize any disruption to the supply chain, keeping patients and clients at top of mind.
C4 Labs has been preparing for the flood of compliance testing samples beyond just their accreditation. “Over the last 16 months we have added a new fully renovated lab space, doubled our lab staff and have invested significant monetary resources in additional state of the art analytical instruments to allow for more analysis and expanded lab sample capacity,” says Treacy. “We intend to make efficiency and capacity our focus while maintaining our commitment to sound science and data integrity for our clients and patients alike.”
C4 Labs is currently in its sixth year of operating and was one of the original labs to serve Arizona patients. “We are very proud of the work we have put in to advocate for safe, lab-tested cannabis products and we intend to continue to lead from the front as Arizona’s premier cannabis testing laboratory.”
The hemp industry is rapidly growing, but it’s no secret that it suffers from a major legitimacy problem. When manufacturers choose to certify their products and processes under a third-party agency, such as the USDA, it is a way for those companies to gain credibility with new customers.
The USDA’s organic certification program is a great way to increase transparency and trust with both ingredients and processes used within the hemp industry. Organic certification is a rigorous audit program to review both manufacturing facility design and production process plans with the ultimate goal of increasing supply chain sustainability.
Investing in organic certification is a smart business decision – especially in today’s competitive CBD market. A recent Bloomberg report has shown that COVID-19 has actually accelerated organic food sales in the US due to increased demand for health-conscious foods and drinks. “Sales of organic food and drinks surged 25% during the 17-week period ended June 27,” according to Nielsen Data.
Organic certification is one way to differentiate between the thousands of seemingly identical CBD products being sold in the marketplace today. From a consumer perspective, organic certification provides both supply chain transparency and increases confidence with brands and products they already love. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency it provides with pure and natural ingredients.
Not only does certification support ethical practices, it’s also good for business. According to the USDA, “Food labeling can be confusing and misleading, which is why certified organic is an important choice for consumers. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for food that carries the USDA organic seal, or that contains organic ingredients.”
Organic farming and production processes significantly contribute to increasing sustainability within the CBD industry. In general, organic farming is a growing practice for farmers across the US. According to the Pew Research Center, “There were more than 14,000 certified organic farms in the United States in 2016, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This represents a 56% increase from 2011, the earliest comparable year.” The USDA has found that organic production practices can improve water quality, conserve energy, increase biodiversity and contribute to soil health. In terms of organic farming, soil ecology and water quality are both protected by farmers committing to working within regulated guidelines.
Organic certification ensures transparency and trust with a consumer-friendly approach to ingredient products. This comes on the heels of research showing that the CBD market lacks credibility. Organic CBD should be the next step all brands should take to ensure they’re adapting to changing consumer preferences.
According to a press release published July 1, ASI Global Standards announced the launch of their newest audit standard: the Cannabis Safety & Quality Scheme (CSQ). The scheme is built around ISO requirements and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) requirements.
With input from a number of stakeholders in the cannabis space, the CSQ scheme is designed for the cannabis industry and by the cannabis industry. Each standard was developed by industry professionals and stakeholders, like growers, manufacturers and processors, to meet market, consumer and regulatory requirements from seed-to-sale.
The CSQ scheme is built on four standards:
Growing and Cultivation of Cannabis Plants
Manufacturing and Extraction of Cannabis
Manufacturing and Infusion of Cannabis into Food & Beverage Products
Manufacturing of Cannabis Dietary Supplements
There is a public comment period in effect now, and those wishing to provide input have until July 31 to do so. If certification bodies or accreditation bodies want to find more information and get involved in the CSQ certification or accreditation process, they are encouraged to reach out via email at email@example.com.
On May 13, months after the Israeli government originally signed off on cannabis exports, a free export order was finally approved by outgoing Minister of the Economy Eli Cohen. This is also sixteen months after the government approved exports of locally grown cannabis (at least in theory) and after the country began importing earlier this year as domestic patients were given priority for existing medical supplies.
However, all the internal barriers have now been officially removed. Exporters who wish to sell medical cannabis abroad are now able to obtain a license, as the order enters into full force by mid-June. The new regulation specifically requires that such products have obtained GMP certification (the pharmaceutical-grade cert required for all medical cannabis in Europe’s medical markets).
Licensing Already Underway
At least two Israeli companies have already obtained such licensing approvals. Cannabics, a company located in both Israel and Bethesda, Maryland, has obtained final approval of its drugs for export to both Canada and Europe, as well as Australia. The company is licensed by the Israeli Ministry of Health to conduct research and development on cannabinoid-based medications and cancer and operates a facility in Rehovot.
Cannabics describes itself as an American pharmaceutical company with R&D operations in Israel.
However, there is another interesting twist to all of this. Cantourage, a German company founded by entrepreneurs behind Pedianos, one of the two earliest importers of medical cannabis into the country (created in 2015 and subsequently purchased by Aurora), announced its import of the synthetic dronabinol to Germany from BOL Pharma, based in Israel, in late April. In doing so, they also became the first company to challenge Canopy Growth in its domination of the synthetic cannabinoid market which remains about one third of reimbursed prescriptions by volume (at least ffor publically insured patients) of cannabinoid medications.
Why Is This Development So Significant? The European and Canadian markets are clearly leading the world in at least the consumption of cannabinoid-based medications – which by definition are based on extractions of the plant, beyond floß (or flower). Israeli producers have been banned from entering these markets for the last several years due to internal political struggles domestically, and an apparent deal between Israel and American presidents Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump to delay market entry.
This delay also impacted Israeli firms hoping to enter the first German cultivation bid, which was finally decided last spring. It is expected that the first domestically cultivated product will be distributed to local apothekes as of this fall, although this may be slightly delayed as a result of fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
This delay is not expected to impact the import market in the country, which is the source of all flower-based medicine here, and will continue to be a strong market segment. The bid itself only called for a limited production of cannabis in Germany, and was already too little to meet the needs of domestic patients.
However, what the potential lag in German product also does is open a door for Israeli products to now enter the market before German-produced cannabis becomes available.
A Steep Uphill Climb What the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly affected, more than drug entry, however, is something almost as important – namely doctor education. For a producer or distributor to get sales via German pharmacies, they also have to ensure that doctors are prescribing the drug. This is a lot easier if the product is a generic, like dronabinol, because doctors can write prescriptions for a drug which can now be sourced from several sources. It becomes a little harder to do that with any formulated substance, and further one with a “brand” name. Especially because German doctors are right now are on the forefront of an uneasy “flattening the curve” scenario as the economy continues to cautiously resume somewhat normal operations.
The challenge that remains, indeed not just for Israeli entrants, but everyone with new product formulations, is educating doctors about prescribing such medications, and further, obtaining insurance approvals for those who have been prescribed such drugs.
Cost, which is beginning to be addressed by the regulated pricing established here for domestically produced cannabis, is still in the room too.
The Market Continues To Open Regardless of the struggle, and the costs involved, it is clear that the German market is obviously now finally opening to Israeli firms and on the processed medical front (as opposed to “just” flower).
Further it is also a sign that the market here is maturing, and even specializing.
No matter the obstacles, in other words, and despite the pandemic, the global market for cannabinoid drugs continues to expand.
In a press release published, last week, Perry Johnson Registrars Food Safety, Inc. (PJRFSI) announced they are now officially the first certification body to be granted accreditation for cannabis certification in the United States by ANAB.
PJRFSI has developed a cannabis certification standard that uses GMP- and GAP-based scheme to help growers, manufacturers and retailers meet a wide range of different state regulations. The goal of the standard, according to the press release, is to provide guidelines for cultivation, manufacturing and retail best practices across the country.
Because each state has very different rules and requirements for cannabis companies, the certification requirements can be confusing and vary widely from state to state. With the release of this new standard, PJRFSI wants to simplify cannabis markets in the United States and hopefully get various states on a same or similar page.
According to Terry Boboige and Lauren Maloney, president and accreditation manager at PJRFSI respectively, they have a lot of hope for what the future holds in terms of unifying cannabis rules and requirements. “The team at Perry Johnson Registrars Food Safety Inc. is incredibly excited to be the first company in the United States to achieve formal accreditation for our Cannabis and Hemp Certification Program,” says Boboige and Maloney. “We believe this nationally-recognized program will help the budding cannabis and hemp industries to strengthen, legitimize, and separate themselves from companies that do not have formal certification. Certification to this standard will forever help enhance companies’ image, credibility, and reliability. Accredited certification exemplifies to the public that certified organizations who supply cannabis and hemp products and services have internal safety systems that can inspire confidence.”
In our previous post, we touched on the fact that state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses (including indirect cannabis businesses) could not receive federal financial assistance due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). While state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses have been adversely affected due to government imposed shelter-in-place restrictions across the United States, they are unable to take advantage of the multi-trillion dollar stimulus packages that are designed to help small businesses because they are engaged in “federally illegal” activities. As described below, applicants applying for federal loans must certify, under penalty of perjury, that they are not engaged in “illegal” activity.
While it is our view that state-legal medical and recreational cannabis businesses should be entitled to assistance as they are hurting like every other business, we explain why such businesses cannot receive financial assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program due to the facts that these businesses do not comply with federal law.
As previously discussed, Section 1102 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act or the “Act”) directed $349 billion to the Small Business Administration (SBA) to administer to small businesses harmed by COVID-19. As a result, businesses can apply for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other SBA financial assistance, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs), traditional 7(a) loans, 504 loans, and microloans, and can also receive investment capital from the Small Business Investment Company program.
Paycheck Protection Program (PPP)
Generally, the following businesses are eligible to receive loans under the PPP:
Any business, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, 501(c)(19) veterans organization or Tribal business with not more than 500 employees whose principal place of residence is in the United States;
Any business that meets the SBA employee-basedsize standards for the industry in which it operates (if applicable);
Any business that is a “small business concern” as defined in Section 3 of the Small Business Act, 15 U.S.C. 632, and meets the SBA employee-based or revenue-basedsize standards corresponding to its primary industry; or
Any business that is a “small business concern” under the SBA’s “alternative size standard” as of March 27, 2020, which standard is met if the business has not more than:
(i) maximum tangible net worth of $15 million, and
(ii) an average net income of $5 million (after Federal income taxes, excluding any carry-over losses) for 2 full fiscal years before the date of application.
Importantly, to apply for PPP, an applicant must make a good faith certification that the applicant is eligible to receive a PPP loan. An applicant must certify, under penalty of perjury, that it “is not engaged in any activity that is illegal under federal, state or local law.” (Borrower Application Form, page 2).
Consequently, because state-legal marijuana businesses (including indirect marijuana businesses) are operating in violation of federal law, applicants cannot make such certification, they remain ineligible to participate in the PPP.
Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs)
The CARES Act also provided a slew of changes to the SBA’s pre-existing EIDL program, which provides small businesses with working capital loans of up to $2 million to assist to help overcome the temporary loss of revenue as the result of a declared disaster.
The Act set out new rules making it easier for small businesses harmed by COVID-19 to receive loans quickly and efficiently; the Act added $30 billion to the EIDL loan fund, with an additional $10 billion added for the EIDL Grants connected to the EIDL loans.
The CARES Act also expanded eligibility to include businesses with no more than 500 employees, any individual operating as a sole proprietor or an independent contractor, and tribal businesses, cooperatives and ESOPs with no more than 500 employees. Small business concerns and small agricultural cooperatives who meet the SBA’s applicable size standards are also eligible, as well as most nonprofits.
However, to receive an EIDL loan, applicants must make a good faith certification that the applicant is eligible to receive an EIDL. An applicant must certify, under penalty of perjury, that it “is not engaged in any illegal activity (as defined by Federal guidelines).” (COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan Application).
The SBA has clarified that the limitation on applicants “engaged in any illegal activity” (13 CFR § 120.110 (h)) refers to all applicants engaged in “illegal activity under federal, state, or local law.”
In a Statement of Position issued on April 1, 2019 (the SOP), the SBA clarified that “illegal activity” includes “[a]pplicants that make, sell, service, or distribute products or services used in connection with illegal activity, unless such use can be shown to be completely outside of the Applicant’s intended market.” (SOP 50 10 5(K))
The SOP indicated that both (i) Direct Marijuana Businesses1 and (ii) Indirect Marijuana Businesses2 cannot receive SBA assistance due to the limitation on applicants “engaged in any illegal activity.”
It is the SBA’s position that, “because federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of marijuana, financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.”
Consequently, because state-legal cannabis businesses (including indirect marijuana businesses) are operating in violation of federal law, applicants cannot certify that they are “not engaged in any illegal activity,” they are not eligible to receive EIDLs.
“Direct Marijuana Business” mean “a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to recreational use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.”
“Indirect Marijuana Business” means “a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to aid in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples of Indirect Marijuana Businesses include businesses that provide testing services, or sell or install grow lights, hydroponic or other specialized equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses; and businesses that advise or counsel Direct Marijuana Businesses on the specific legal, financial/ accounting, policy, regulatory or other issues associated with establishing, promoting, or operating a Direct Marijuana Business. However … [the] SBA does not consider a plumber who fixes a sink for a Direct Marijuana Business or a tech support company that repairs a laptop for such a business to be aiding in the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Indirect Marijuana Businesses also include businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products if the products are primarily intended or designed for marijuana use or if the business markets the products for such use.”
The recent decision in Germany on the reclassification of CBD (kudos to the European Industrial Hemp Association) as something other than “novel” has now opened an interesting new discussion in Germany and by extension, Europe.
It basically means that hemp plants, if they are European in origin, can be grown (under the right regulatory structure starting with organic) and even extracted without ever being considered a “novel food.”
Look for (hopefully) similar discussions now across Europe and the UK where the Food Safety Authority is also examining similar policies.
What this ultimately means, however, is that the market is clearly opening on the CBD front, but only for products that make the grade.
What should the average producer or manufacturer from North America think about when setting up a supply chain for export?
Thanks to the new treaties in place between the United States, Canada and Europe right now, there are market openings in the cannabis industry in Europe. Starting with the fact that the cannabis bug has clearly hit the continent, but there is actually not enough regulated product to be found yet and just about anywhere.
This is keeping prices high right now, but do not expect that to last.
Regardless, pricing of imports will not be like anything you have experienced if your background is state or even national market in the U.S. or Canada. There are higher regulations in every direction in Europe. Understanding how to translate the same into equivalencies that do not bankrupt you, overprice your products, or worse, get you in trouble with authorities is a critical first step, and not one to be taken lightly.
Get professional guidance from the country you are hoping to export to, at minimum. And that includes the legal kind. Every step of the way, you have to be certified with, at minimum, federal if not at an international certification.
No matter what cannabinoid is in the mix, this is ultimately a plant-based product. All rules one would normally think about when talking about other food products (for starters) are in the room.
While it is far from “this easy” (although thanks to the USDA’s decision about hemp, not to mention the FDA update on its own deliberations, there are now federal standards), think about the problem this way: If you were the world’s best chocolate bar, or even tomato juice, how would you hit Europe right now?
They have tomatoes here, and unbelievably great chocolate already. What is it about your offering that can stand out? This is the million-dollar question. There are a few people and companies doing this right now, but it takes experience, and understanding the multiple regulatory guidelines involved. Once you figure that out, then you need to look at your supply chain, piece by piece and literally from the plant through end production for where you fit, and where you might not, into the regulatory discussion and market you hope to enter.
The Medical Discussion
There is now the possibility of exporting medical grade hemp and hemp extracts from the United States to Europe. However, everything must be GMP-certified to a medical standard, from organic production on up. This is an international standard, not an American one.
That qualification does not exist much in the cannabis industry in the United States (although ISO very much is) yet. Although it is dawning. On the Canadian side, there are plenty of companies in the discussion, because there is already a beaten path to export.
As the German cultivation bid proved, European certification, certainly is a high barrier to reach. Indeed, it is not only GMP certification in the room on the medical side but also rules about the import of all plant products.
From this perspective, it is also easier to import “finished” product rather than plant.
The Recreational Discussion
Before anyone gets too excited about recreational reform, the reality is that Europe is not going to step ahead of the UN (which has now pushed its next deliberation on the topic to the end of 2020). Yes, there are trials in a couple of places, but far from earth-shaking (recreational trials in the land of the coffee shop anyone?)
More interesting, of course, is what has just happened on the CBD side. But before American hemp farmers get too excited about this, they have hemp and farmers in Europe. And quite a few people have seen the light on this one already.
Sure New York state exports to Europe are probably in the offing, but so are hemp exports from the Southern states where the weather is warmer and the labor cheaper.
Certified labs, processing and extraction, and labelling are all in the mix. And every step must be documented as you go.
How to Proceed?
Whatever your crop or product is, take stock of the certifications you have now. If your plant was not organic, forget export anywhere. You are out of the international game.
However, with this taken care of, look at the certification requirements in Europe for extraction, processing and import of food and plant products and obtain production partners with the same – either in the US or abroad.
With luck, patience, skill and knowledge, yes, the doors are slowing opening, even to U.S.-based cannabis trade of the international kind.
Just don’t expect it to be easy, and leave lots of time for workarounds, pivots and even re-engineering at every point of the way.
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