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Spotlight on AOAC: New Leadership, New Initiatives In Cannabis & Food

By Aaron G. Biros
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AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.

Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.

In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.

Dr. Palmer Orlandi is the new Deputy Executive Director and Chief Science Officer at AOAC.

Where It All Began With Cannabis

As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.

According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.

Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official Methods at AOAC

Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”

Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs

Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”

According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.

Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles

The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.

Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program

Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.

While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing

Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.

David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC

“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”

When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.

Food Authenticity & Fraud

One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.

AOAC INTERNATIONAL is working in a large variety of other areas as well. All of these topics will be explored in much greater detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Swiss Cloud 9 Begins Importing Cannabis From United States

By Marguerite Arnold
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For all the success of the cannabis market in the United States, there are two big issues that still confound the industry because of a lack of federal reform. The first, of course, is national recognition of an industry that still struggles with banking, insurance and selling products across state lines. The other is international trade.

However, it appears that one Colorado-based company, United Cannabis, has now successfully begun to navigate the complex regulatory and standards puzzle, and further, has set up trade and import agreements in both France and Switzerland. Even more interesting? It managed to do the same before the passage of the Farm Bill.

At present they are exporting to Europe from Florida – but the fact that they are exporting in the European direction at all is a feat still unmatched by many other American firms all looking to do the same thing.

Francis Scanlan, founder of Cloud 9 Switzerland

In Switzerland, they are also partnering with an equally intriguing firm called Cloud 9 Switzerland. We sat down with Francis Scanlan, founder of Cloud 9 Switzerland, to talk about what they are doing and how they are doing it- and from the European perspective.

The First Compliant Swiss Chocolate Maker

Cloud 9 is a start-up that is going head to head with the larger Canadian firms in innovative ways and in several directions. That includes the creation of food and beverage products. It also includes pharmaceuticals.

As of January 22, 2019, Cloud 9 also received approval from Swiss authorities to proceed with production of what will be, as Scanlan describes it, “the first EU-compliant hemp chocolate bar.” The hemp they are using contains a full spectrum hemp extract, which does not fall under the rubric of a so-called “novel food” because hemp has been a product in the consumer market here for a long time.

The product will be on Italian shelves as of the end of Q1 this year. Beyond the regulatory approvals necessary to get to market, it also took him about a year to find and convince a chocolate manufacturer in Switzerland to work with him.

Scanlan describes his year and a half old firm as the “value added” between suppliers, manufacturers and distributors. With a background in the corporate food and beverage industry including a stint at Nestlé, he and his team create the formulations and commercialize new products. And they keep a sharp eye on the regulatory bottom line in Europe.

Cloud 9’s corporate mission, Scanlan says, is to improve the quality of life and wellness of their customers. “We are not in the opportunistic marketing business” he says. “We want to create products that really benefit people. Our motto has always been Win-Win for both our partners and consumers.”

Bringing A Glaucoma Drug To The EU Market

However do not mistake Cloud 9 or even Scanlan himself as a kind of cannabis Willy Wonka one hit wonder. Or a firm that is solely operating in the wellness space. They are also now working to bring a Glaucoma drug into the EU where they will begin with medical trials to start the approval process. That said, Scanlan is confident about the success of this product as well. “It has a great dossier in its home country,” he says. “And that has also already caught the interest of doctors in Italy and Switzerland.”

Beyond that, there are other plans in the works, including the introduction of a transdermal patch that delivers cannabinoids through the skin. “The great thing about this kind of approach,” Scanlan says, “is that it allows people to get over their fear of orally ingested drugs. They don’t like the effect, they can just take it off.” He also noted that the patch uses a patented technology that allows a far more efficient delivery mechanism, which creates a time-delayed medication approach and allows for a 90% transfer of cannabinoids.

In other words, this small, privately funded start-up, using innovative approaches to a market Scanlan knows well, is absolutely in the ring and going to market. And further doing so with a European mindset and operating philosophy that incorporates not only hemp exported from the American hemisphere, but is mixed with a large dollop of good old “American” entrepreneurial gusto and inclinations.


Disclaimer: Cloud9 is a sponsor of the MedPayRx pilot to market program in the EU.

G FarmaLabs Brand Poised for Expansion, Recreational Sales

By Aaron G. Biros
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Patients in California have had access to medical marijuana since it was legalized in 1996. Two decades of legal medical marijuana in California, the world’s eight largest economy, has formed a thriving market of producers, processors and dispensaries. Propositions on the state’s ballot for 2016, such as the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act, promise measures to introduce the recreational market into the state regulatory system.

G FarmaLabs, a family-owned and operated business, has been operating in California since November of 2013, when they launched at a Marijuana Business Conference in Seattle that year. Ata Gonzalez, founder of G FarmaBrands and chief executive officer of G FarmaLabs, has been in the cannabis industry since 2009, cultivating in California and operating marijuana dispensaries, when he took notice of the changing industry and consumer trends shifting toward consumption of edibles and concentrates.

Ata Gonzalez, CEO of G FarmaLabs and founder of GFarmaBrands
Ata Gonzalez, CEO of G FarmaLabs and founder of GFarmaBrands

“Once the Cole Memo hit in August of 2013, the cannabis industry took off and so did we through a combination of great timing and well thought out regular market packaging and marketing,” says Gonzalez. “With our background in cultivation, we use quality flower as the foundation of our brand, and our proprietary cannabis oil formulations are the backbone of the brand, we use that oil to infuse all regular market edibles products.” They are vertically integrated, beginning with their cultivation of seven strains, so they monitor every blend going into their products and test for potency and pesticides in a consistent manner.

Another key ingredient in their brand recognition seems to come through great product diversity. G FarmaLabs has twenty flavors of infused chocolate bars, a variety of chocolate truffles, pretzels, brittle, chocolate covered cherries, teas, lemonades and other forms of infused edibles. They manufacture a variety of cannabis oil concentrates that come in a syringe to refill cartridges or put on your dry flower or joint but they also sell pre-filled vape cartridges, and pre rolled cannabis cigarettes called G Stiks.

The GFarmaLabs logo, an integral part of their branding, is emblazoned on their packaging.
The G FarmaLabs logo, an integral part of their branding, is emblazoned on their packaging.

Luigi De Dominicis, chief technology officer of G FarmaBrands, says their extraction process is another essential factor in the brand’s success. They run their raw plant material through supercritical fluid extraction (SFE) with CO2. “We do not use solvents like butane to extract our oil because CO2 is proven to be safe for both the operator and end user; we pride ourselves in putting out a safe and quality product,” says De Dominicis. “The same product that goes into our cartridges and syringes goes into our edibles with a different refinement process, which are all tested for potency, microbials and pesticides to ensure consistency, safety and quality.”

In building a successful recreational brand, their expansion model will play a crucial role in keeping their reputation for quality and consistency. David Kotler, Esq., regulatory counsel for global territories at G FarmaBrands, cites their licensing model as the primary distinction between G FarmaBrands and other large marijuana brands looking to expand across state lines. “We are trying to own and control every operation and keep it consistent with production and manufacturing versus giving up control via the licensing process and giving it to others,” says Kotler. This distinction means that G FarmaLabs producers and processors in different states will all operate under the same best practices regardless of location, ensuring consistency from one state to the next.

A glimpse into the new G FarmaLabs facility: The site plan in the city of Desert Hot Springs w3here they are applying for a permit
A glimpse into the new G FarmaLabs facility: The site plan in the city of Desert Hot Springs where they are applying for a permit

“While most states have some form of residency requirements, we are planning to grow organically and self contained, ideally expanding to areas where G FarmaBrands can hold licenses,” adds Kotler. For example, Maryland does not have a residency requirement in their licensing application so that is one of the states they are actively pursuing.

Moving forward, G FarmaBrands is positioning itself for national recognition. “It is difficult in this current regulatory state to state structure to have a national brand, but national recognition is certainly attainable through our great in-house marketing team,” says Kotler.

Running an expansion model of keeping everything very internal, along with their dedication to safety and quality, G FarmaBrands is very well-positioned to be the premier cannabis brand for the state of California, and possibly the nation. They recently harvested a crop in Washington State and in 2016, their products will come to market there. As GFarmaBrands attempts to expand into Maryland for manufacturing, cultivating and operating a retail dispensary, Gonzales keeps his mind set on sustainable growth through 2016 and beyond.