Increasing cannabis use across the US has come with increased scrutiny of its health effects. Regulators and healthcare providers are not just concerned about the direct effects of inhaling or consuming cannabinoids, however, but also about another health risk: microbial contamination in cannabis products. Like any other crop, cannabis is susceptible to contamination by harmful pathogens at several points throughout the supply chain, from cultivation and harvesting to distribution. Many state regulators have set limits for microbial populations in cannabis products. Consequently, testing labs must adopt efficient screening protocols to help companies remain compliant and keep their customers safe.
Some of the pathogens common to cannabis flower include Aspergillus fungus species such as A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger and A. terreus. Cannabis might also harbor harmful E. coli and Salmonella species, including Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Regulations vary by state, but most have set specific thresholds for how many colony forming units (CFUs) of particular species can be present in a sellable product.
Growers and testing labs need to develop a streamlined approach to remain viable. Current methods, including running cultures on every sample, can be expensive and time-consuming, but by introducing a PCR-based screening step first, which identifies the presence of microbial DNA – and therefore the potential for contamination – laboratories can reduce the number of cultures they need to run, saving money and time.
If contamination grows out of control, the pathogen can damage the cannabis plant itself and lead to financial losses. Aspergillus can also cause serious illness in consumers, especially those that are immunocompromised. If an immunocompromised person inhales Aspergillus, they can develop aspergillosis, a lung condition with a poor prognosis.
A Two-Step Screening Process
The gold standard method for detecting microbes is running cultures. This technique takes weeks to deliver results and can yield inaccurate CFU counts, making it difficult for growers to satisfy regulators and create a safe product in a timely manner. The use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can greatly shorten the time to results and increase sensitivity by determining whether the sample has target DNA.
Using PCR can be expensive, particularly to screen for multiple species at the same time, but a qPCR-based Aspergillus detection assay could lead to significant cost savings. Since the average presumptive positive rate for Aspergillus contamination is low (between 5-10%), this assay can be used to negatively screen large volumes of cannabis samples. It serves as an optional tool to further speciate only those samples that screened positive to comply with state regulations.
Overall, screening protocols have become a necessary part of cannabis production, and to reduce costs, testing labs must optimize methods to become as efficient as possible. With tools such as PCR technology and a method that allows for initial mass screening followed by speciation only when necessary, laboratories can release more samples faster with fewer unnecessary analyses and more success for cannabis producers in the marketplace.
Many experts agree that of all pests threatening the cannabis industry, rodents are the most dangerous. Not only do they chew on cannabis plants and ruin crops at an incredible rate, they also contaminate product with their urine and feces. Rodents post a serious threat to cannabis facilities at every level of the supply chain.
Rodents’ incisor teeth never stop growing; left untouched, a rat’s incisor teeth would grow 4 inches in a year*. For this reason, they must constantly gnaw on things around them to wear them down. Unfortunately for cannabis growers, the woody stalks of cannabis plants present a perfect target. The destructive power of rodents cannot be overstated – creatures that can gnaw through plastic, wood, aluminum, brick, cement and even lead will make very short work of cannabis crops.
The notion that growing cannabis indoors will protect it from rodents is a misconception. Their destructive gnawing power makes rodents highly adept at getting inside buildings. Rodents can enter a building through an opening as small as 1/4 inch, and they will use any means necessary to reach the food and shelter that a heated building provides. In addition to squeezing through minuscule openings, rats and mice can climb wires and rough surfaces, jump considerable distances and tread water for several days.
And once they are inside, it is already too late. Pest control experts worldwide agree that exclusion – the technical term for using physical barriers to prevent rodents from entering a building vs. trying to remove them once inside – is the safest, most effective approach to rodent control. This is because once rodents have gained entry, they will contaminate – and multiply – at an alarming rate.
In one year, two mice could potentially multiply into more than 5,000 mice and two rats could become 1,250. In that same year, a single rat can shed more than half a million body hairs, and a mouse can produce up to 18,000 fecal droppings. Rodents eat or contaminate at least twenty percent of the world’s food supply each year (according to the Indiana Department of Health) and carry diseases including rat bite fever, hantavirus, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, murine typhus, and even the bubonic plague. According to experts from Total Food Service, “Mice are known to frequently carry salmonella bacteria in their digestive tract, so salmonella can be easily spread through contact with rodent waste. This is true with marijuana [sic]edibles just as it is with other food products.”
Keeping rodents out of cannabis facilities is fundamental to protecting crops and products. The most common rodent entryways include exterior doors, open garage and loading dock doors, windows, air vents, fireplaces and at points where electrical, water, gas, sewer and HVAC lines enter the building. Rats and mice can also gain entry through tiny cracks in the foundation, by gnawing through the standard rubber and vinyl seals on most garage and loading dock doors, and beneath roofing tiles.
Consider the following exclusion best practices highlighted in The Mallis Handbook of Pest Control:
Safeguard your doors. Wooden doors are continuously vulnerable to the gnawing of rats. Sheet iron flashing should be installed surrounding the door, and any clearance below the door must be smaller than 3/8 inch. All doors should remain closed when not in use and be fitted with proven, specialized rodent-proof door sweeps.
Ventilator grills and windows should be protected with proper and proven exclusion materials, ensuring any voids or cracks are filled.
Defective drain pipes provide a transportation pipeline for rodents. A perforated metal cover should be cemented over the drain pipe, and any small openings surrounding the drain where it enters the building should be patched or filled with proven exclusion material.
Large sidewalk cracks should be sealed as these crevices allow rodents to access a building’s foundation, enabling them to more easily search for entry points. Foundation walls can be protected with barriers of metal, concrete, or brick around and below the foundation.
Circular rat guards should be placed around all vertical wires and pipes.
Ensure that cracked or broken roofing tiles are identified and replaced in a timely manner, and utilize proven exclusion material to fill any voids.
It’s also critical that only proven, rodent-proof exclusion materials be utilized to seal entry points. Caulk, mortar and spray foam offer almost zero protection against the gnawing power of rodents. Steel wool is often used for filling cracks and crevices, but will eventually rust and break down, rendering it useless against rodents. All exclusion materials should be made of stainless steel or other permanent elements.
Standard rubber door sweeps used for weatherization are not designed to withstand rodent gnawing, making the small gap beneath and around exterior doors a primary rodent entry point. Specialized rodent-proof door sweeps are fundamental to effective rodent exclusion. Xcluder’s Rodent-Proof Door Sweeps feature a core of Xcluder Fill Fabric – a blend of stainless steel and poly-fiber with sharp, coarse fibers that rodents cannot gnaw through – reinforced gaskets for a superior weatherseal and an extended rubber flap to create a flush ground seal against insects and other outdoor contaminants. Installing rodent-proof door sweeps is arguably the single most important step in protecting cannabis facilities from rodent infestation.
Sanitation is also important. Food products of any kind must be stored in sealed containers. Garbage should be collected frequently and stored as far away from the building as possible. Clutter should be avoided in storage areas as crowded shelves and boxes create opportunities for rodent nesting. Roofs and gutters should be free of debris as standing water attracts rodents as well. All trees and landscaping should be trimmed back away from the building to prevent not only rodent burrowing but also access to the roof.
Rodents are not easily deterred, but a well-supported, thorough exclusion plan is the strongest weapon in the fight against rodents. Investing the time and resources to properly safeguard buildings against rodents before a problem is identified is the best way to protect the plants, products and personnel inside cannabis facilities.
Let’s just say it. There is an undeniable chaos in the cannabis industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big or small operator, it’s likely that you don’t have a documented system for creating and managing ever-changing SOPs or for consistently training all employees on the most current versions of those SOPs. This chaos is often the result of rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, and the ever-present turnover in our industry. When department leadership changes, and it often does, established policies and procedures are often left behind. In some cases, this is a positive sign of growth. As a company outgrows SOPs and as it develops more sophisticated ways to cultivate, extract, process, manufacture, package and sell cannabis and cannabis products, inevitably, the old ways of doing business need to be replaced. For those operators who have prioritized operational excellence, whether they want to position their company for new investment, merger or acquisition, or just want to create a consistent and standardized, branded product, it’s critical to get control of SOPs, training and documentation.
As with most big goals, to obtain operational excellence, you need to break the goal into manageable steps. Assuming you have accessible quality policies and procedures in place, properly training employees when they first start work and on an ongoing basis as policies and procedures change is the number one key to successful operations. When employees know how to do their job and understand what is expected of them, they are positioned for success. When employees are successful, it follows that the company will also be successful. Documenting operations is a second important step in obtaining operational excellence. While training and documentation appear to be different, in best-practice organizations, they are inextricably linked.
One Set of SOPs
Those of us who have been in the cannabis industry for a while have experienced firsthand or heard stories of facility staff working off of two sets of SOPs. There’s the set of SOPs that are printed or digitally available for the regulators, let’s call them the “ideal” set, and then there are the SOPs that actually get implemented on a day-to-day basis. While this is common, it’s risky and undermines the foundation of operational excellence. Employees often know there are two sets of SOPs. Whether they express it or not, many are uncomfortable with the intentional or unintentional deception. When regulators arrive, will they have to bend the truth or even lie about daily operations? Taking the time to establish and implement one set of approved SOPs that is compliant with both external regulations and internal standards is good for employee morale, productivity and ultimately, profits.
What’s the best way to get control of a facility’s SOPs? Again, break it into manageable steps:
First, task someone with reviewing all SOPs that are floating around. Determine if any are non-compliant, which ones need to be tossed and which ones need to be revised so they work for the company as well as outside regulatory authorities.
At a minimum, establish a two-person team to draft, review, publish and distribute the final SOPs. Ensure that at least one member of the team has management level authority. Assign that employee the responsibility of reviewing the SOPs before “publication” and distribution.
Archive, delete, or actually throw away outdated or non-compliant SOPs
Revise or create new best-practice SOPs that are in compliance with external regulations and internal standards
Establish a system to update SOPs when external regulations and internal standards change
Use a naming convention that distinguishes draft SOPs from final SOPs, for example, “Post-Harvest Procedure, FINAL”
Inform employees that they will be retrained on the new SOPs and that approved SOPs will always have the word “Final” in the title
Store the final SOPs in an easily accessible location and give employees access, not only during training, but on an ongoing basis
Centralized Repository for Final SOPs
Storing final, approved SOPs in one easily accessible, centralized location and giving employees access sounds simple, but again, this is the cannabis industry, so this often doesn’t happen. Many of us have or are currently working for an organization that stores SOPs in multiple places. Each department may have its own way of updating, disseminating and storing SOPs. Some SOPs are stored in a printed binder stuffed in a drawer or left on a bottom shelf. Others are stored digitally. Some use both systems, which creates confusion. Who knows if the digital versions or the printed versions are the most current? Surely someone knows, but often the front-line staff do not.“Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees.”
Establishing a centralized repository for final, approved SOPs is the foundation of operational excellence. It lets employees know that operations are organized and controlled, and it reassures regulatory authorities and external stakeholders—think insurers, bankers, investors—that the company prioritizes compliance and organization. And external stakeholders who believe that an organization is proactive and well-run tend to be more forgiving when the inevitable missteps occur. Companies that are organized, have effective training systems, regularly conduct internal audits to identify potential issues and take identifiable action steps when necessary to remediate issues, receive fewer deficiency notices, violations and fines than their less organized competitors.
Many states require cannabis operators to provide a specific number of training hours prior to an employee beginning work, and a specific number of continuing and refresher training hours annually. Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees. To do so, set clear expectations and decide who is responsible for what. Is the HR manager responsible for initial onboarding and training? Are department managers responsible for ongoing and annual training? Create a training responsibility chart that works best for your company; write it down and share with all stakeholders.
The next step is to figure out how to train your employees. Individuals have different learning styles, so ideally, you’ll offer multiple ways for them to master the requirements of their position. Assign written materials and if possible, attach short videos showing the best way to complete a task. Follow up with a quiz to determine comprehension and a conversation with a department lead or manager to answer questions and review the key take-aways. Ideally, the department manager or lead employee will work with the employee until they are competent and comfortable taking on new assigned tasks and responsibilities.
Sum It Up
Operational excellence begins with:
Knowledge of and access to current external rules and regulations and internal standards
One set of approved and easily accessible policies and SOPs that comply with both external and internal standards
An initial training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
An ongoing training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
Test knowledge before employees begin unsupervised work
Stay up-to-date with all changes to external rules and regulations and internal standards
Control policy and SOP revision process
Inform all stakeholders when policies and SOPs change
Test that employees understand new standards
Document all key areas of operation on a recurring basis
Address deficiencies and evaluate whether SOP revisions are warranted
Document and implement necessary remediation when necessary
For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking you don’t have time for this, ask yourself, “Can you afford not to?”
For those of you committed to operational excellence and doing what it takes to get there, congratulations on being a visionary leader. Your efforts will pay dividends for your own company and will help the cannabis industry grow into a well-respected, profitable industry that improves lives.
Cross Contamination – noun – “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures. – (Mariam Webster, 2021). Cross contamination is not a new concept in the clinical and food lab industries; many facilities have significant design aspects as well as SOPs to deliver the least amount of contaminants into the lab setting. For cannabis labs, however, often the exponential growth leads to a circumstance where the lab simply isn’t large enough for the number of samples processed and number of analytical instruments and personnel needed to process them. Cross contamination for cannabis labs can mean delayed results, heightened occurrences of false positives, and ultimately lost customers – why would you pay for analysis of your clean product in a dirty facility? The following steps can save you the headaches associated with cross contamination:
Wash (and dry) your hands properly
Flash back to early pandemic times when the Tik Tok “Ghen Co Vy” hand washing song was the hotness – we had little to no idea that the disease would be fueled mostly by aerosol transmission, but the premise is the same, good hand hygiene is good to reduce cross contamination. Hands are often the source of bacteria, both resident (here for the long haul; attached to your hands) and transient (easy to remove; just passing through), as they come into contact with surfaces from the bathroom to the pipettor daily (Robinson et al, 2016). Glove use coupled with adequate hand washing are good practices to reduce cross contamination from personnel to a product sample. Additionally, the type of hand drying technique can reduce the microbial load on the bathroom floors and, subsequently tracked into the lab. A 2013 study demonstrated almost double the contamination from air blade technology versus using a paper towel to dry your hands (Margas et al, 2013).
Design Your Lab for Separation
Microbes are migratory. In fact, E. coli can travel at speeds up to 15 body lengths per second. Compared to the fastest Olympians running the 4X100m relay, with an average speed of 35 feet per second or 6 body lengths, this bacterium is a gold medal winner, but we don’t want that in the lab setting (Milo and Phillips, 2021). New lab design keeps this idea of bacterial travel in mind, but for those labs without a new build, steps can be made to prevent contamination:
Try to keep traffic flow moving in one direction. Retracing steps can lead to contamination of a previous work station
Use separate equipment (e.g. cabinets, pipettes) for each process/step
Separate pre- and post-pcr areas
Physical separation – use different rooms, add walls, partitions, etc.
Establish, Train and Adhere to SOPs
High turnover for personnel in labs causes myriad issues. It doesn’t take long for a lab that is buttoned up with cohesive workflows to become a willy-nilly hodgepodge of poor lab practices. A lack of codified Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can lead to a lab rife with contaminants and no clear way to troubleshoot the issue. Labs should design strict SOPs that include everything from hand hygiene to test procedures and sanitation. Written SOPs, according to the WHO, should be available at all work stations in their most recent version in order to reduce biased results from testing (WHO, 2009). These SOPs should be relayed to each new employee and training on updated SOPs should be conducted on an ongoing basis. According to Sutton, 2010, laboratory SOPs can be broken down into the following categories:
Establish Controls and Monitor Results
It may be difficult for labs to keep tabs on positivity and fail rates, but these are important aspects of a QC regimen. For microbiological analysis, labs should use an internal positive control to validate that 1) the method is working properly and 2) positives are a result of target analytes found in the target matrix, not an internal lab contamination strain. Positive controls can be an organism of choice, such as Salmonella Tranoroa, and can be tagged with a marker, such as Green Fluorescent Protein in order to differentiate the control strain. These controls will allow a lab tech to discriminate between a naturally contaminated specimen vs. a positive as a result of cross-contamination.
Labs should, in addition to having good QC practices, keep track of fail rates and positivity rates. This can be done as total lab results by analysis, but also can be broken down into customers. For instance, a lab fail rate for pesticides averages 4% for dried flower samples. If, during a given period of review, this rate jumps past 6% or falls below 2%, their may be an issue with instrumentation, personnel or the product itself. Once contamination is ruled out, labs can then present evidence of spikes in fail rates to growers who can then remediate in their own facilities. These efforts in concert will inherently drive down fail rates, increase lab capacity and efficiency, and result in cost savings for all parties associated.
Continuous Improvement is the Key
Cannabis testing labs are, compared to their food and clinical counterparts, relatively new. The lack of consistent state and federal regulation coupled with unfathomable growth each year, means many labs have been in the “build the plane as you fly” mode. As the lab environment matures, simple QC, SOP and hygiene changes can make an incremental differences and drive improvements for labs as well as growers and manufacturers they support. Lab management can, and should, take steps to reduce cross contamination, increase efficiency and lower costs; The first step is always the hardest, but continuous improvement cannot begin until it has been taken.
Margas, E, Maguire, E, Berland, C. R, Welander, F, & Holah, J. T. (2013). Assessment of the environmental microbiological cross contamination following hand drying with paper hand towels or an air blade dryer. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 115(2), 572-582.
Milo, M., and Phillips, R. (2021). How fast do cells move? Cell biology by the numbers. Retrieved from http://book.bionumbers.org/how-fast-do-cells-move/
Robinson, Andrew L, Lee, Hyun Jung, Kwon, Junehee, Todd, Ewen, Perez Rodriguez, Fernando, & Ryu, Dojin. (2016). Adequate Hand Washing and Glove Use Are Necessary To Reduce Cross-Contamination from Hands with High Bacterial Loads. Journal of Food Protection, 79(2), 304–308. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-342
Sutton, Scott. (2010). The importance of a strong SOP system in the QC microbiology lab. Journal of GXP Compliance, 14(2), 44.
World Health Organization. (2009). Good Laboratory Practice Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tdr/publications/documents/glp-handbook.pdf
In this “Leaders in Cannabis Testing” series of articles, Green interviews cannabis testing laboratories and technology providers that are bringing unique perspectives to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices and technologies to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory constraints and B2B demand.
PathogenDx is an Arizona-based provider of microbial testing technologies. Since their inception in 2014, they have broadened their reach to 26 states in the US. In addition to cannabis product testing, PathogenDx also provides technologies for food safety testing, environmental testing and recently started offering human diagnostics testing to support COVID-19 response efforts.
We interviewed Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. Milan founded PathogenDx as a spin-off from one of his investments in a clinical diagnostics company testing for genetic markers in transplant organs. Prior to PathogenDx, Milan worked in finance and marketing at Intel and later served as CFO at Acentia (now Maximus Federal).
Aaron Green: What’s the history of PathogenDx?
Milan Patel: PathogenDx was effectively a spin-off of a clinical diagnostics company that my partner Dr. Mike Hogan, the inventor of the technology, had founded when he was a professor at the University of Arizona, but previously at Baylor Medical College back in 2002. I had invested in the company back then and I had realized that his technology had a broad and wide sweeping impact for testing – not just for pathogens in cannabis specifically, but also for pathogens in food, agriculture, water and even human diagnostics. In the last 14 months, this became very personal for every single person on the planet having been impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the viral pathogen causing Covid-19. The genesis of the company was just this, that human health, food and agricultural supply, and the environment has and will continue to be targeted by bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens impacting the safety and health of each human on the planet.
We founded PathogenDx and we pivoted the company from its original human organ transplant genetics market scope into the bigger markets; we felt the original focus was too niche for a technology with this much potential. We licensed the technology, and we repurposed it into primarily cannabis. We felt that achieving commercial success and use in the hands of cannabis testing labs at the state level where cannabis was first regulated was the most logical next step. Ultimately, our goal was and is to move into markets that are approved at the federal regulatory side of the spectrum, and that is where we are now.
Green: What year was that?
Green: So, PathogenDx started in cannabis testing?
Patel: Yes, we started in cannabis testing. We now have over 100 labs that are using the technology. There is a specific need in cannabis when you’re looking at contamination or infection.
In the case of contamination on cannabis, you must look for bacterial and fungal organisms that make it unsafe, such as E. coli, or Salmonella or Aspergillus pathogens. We’re familiar with recent issues like the romaine lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks at Chipotle. In the case of fungal organisms such as Aspergillus, if you smoke or consume contaminated cannabis, it could have a huge impact on your health. Cannabis regulators realized that to ensure public health and safety there was more than just one pathogen – there were half a dozen of these bugs, at a minimum, that could be harmful to you.
The beauty of our technology, using a Microarray is that we can do what is called a multiplex test, which means you’re able to test for all bacterial and fungal pathogens in a single test, as opposed to the old “Adam Smith” model, which tests each pathogen on a one-by-one basis. The traditional approach is costly, time consuming and cumbersome. Cannabis is such a high value crop and producers need to get the answer quickly. Our tests can give a result in six hours on the same day, as opposed to the two or three days that it takes for these other approved methods on the market.
Green: What is your business model? Is there equipment in addition to consumables?
Patel: Our business model is the classic razor blade model. What that means is we sell equipment as well as the consumables – the testing kits themselves.
The PathogenDx technology uses standard, off-the-shelf lab equipment that you can find anywhere. We didn’t want to make the equipment proprietary so that a lab has to buy a specific OEM branded product. They can use almost any equipment that’s available commercially. We wanted to make sure that labs are only paying a fraction of the cost to get our equipment, as opposed to using other vendors. Secondly, the platform is open-ended, meaning it’s highly flexible to work with the volumes that different cannabis labs see daily, from high to low.
One equipment set can process many different types of testing kits. There are kits for regulated testing required by states, as well as required environmental contamination.
Green: Do you provide any in-house or reference lab testing?
Patel: We do. We have a CLIA lab for clinical testing. We did this about a year ago when we started doing COVID testing.
We don’t do any kind of in-house reference testing for cannabis, though we do use specific reference materials or standards from Emerald Scientific, for example, or from NCI. Our platform is all externally third-party reference lab tested whether it’s validated by our external cannabis lab customers or an independent lab. We want our customers to make sure that the actual test works in their own hands, in their own facility by their own people, as opposed to just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “hey, we’ve done it ourselves, believe us.” That’s the difference.
Green: Can you explain the difference between qPCR and endpoint PCR?
Patel: The difference between PathogenDx’s Microarray is it uses endpoint PCR versus qPCR (quantitative real time PCR). Effectively, our test doesn’t need to be enriched. Endpoint PCR delivers a higher level of accuracy, because when it goes to amplify that target DNA, whether it’s E. coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus pieces, it uses all the primer reagent to its endpoint. So, it amplifies every single piece of an E. Coli (for example) in that sample until the primer is fully consumed. In the case of qPCR, it basically reaches a threshold and then the reaction stops. That’s the difference which results in a much greater level of accuracy. This provides almost 10 times greater sensitivity to identify the pathogen in that sample.
The second thing is that we have separated out how the amplified sample hybridizes to the probe. In the case of our assay, we have a microarray with a well in it and we printed the actual probe that has the sequence of E. coli in there, now driving 100% specificity. Whereas in the qPCR, the reaction is not only amplifying, but it’s also basically working with the probe. So, in that way, we have a higher level of efficiency in terms of specificity. You get a definite answer exactly in terms of the organism you’re looking for.
In terms of an analogy, let’s take a zip code for example which has the extra four digits at the end of it. In the case of endpoint PCR, we have nine digits. We have our primer probes which represent the standard five digits of a zip code, and the physical location of the probe itself in the well which serves as the extra four digits of that zip code. The analyte must match both primary and secondary parts of the nine-digit zip code for it to lock in, like a key and a lock. And that’s the way our technology works in a nutshell.
Endpoint PCR is completely different. It drives higher levels of accuracy and specificity while reducing the turnaround time compared to qPCR – down to six hours from sample to result. In qPCR, you must enrich the sample for 24 to 48 hours, depending on bacteria or fungus, and then amplification and PCR analysis can be done in one to three hours. The accuracies and the turnaround times are the major differences between the endpoint PCR and qPCR.
Green: If I understand correctly, it’s a printed microarray in the well plate?
Patel: That’s correct. It’s a 96-well plate, and in each well, you’ve now printed all the probes for all targets in a single well. So, you’re not running more than one well per target, or per organism like you are for qPCR. You’re running just one well for all organisms. With our well plates, you’re consuming fewer wells and our patented foil-cover, you only use the wells you need. The unused wells in the well plate can be used in future tests, saving on costs and labor.
Green: Do you have any other differentiating IP?
Patel: The multiplex is the core IP. The way we process the raw sample, whether it’s flower or non-flower, without the need for enrichment is another part of the core IP. We do triplicate probes in each well for E. Coli, triplicate probes for Salmonella, etc., so there are three probes per targeted organism in each of the wells. We’re triple checking that you’re definitively identifying that bug at the end of the day. This is the cornerstone of our technology.
We were just approved by the State of New York, and the New York Department of Health has 13 different organisms for testing on cannabis. Think about it: one of the most rigorous testing requirements at a state level – maybe even at a federal level – and we just got approved for that. If you had to do 13 organisms separately, whether it’s plate culture or qPCR, it would become super expensive and very difficult. It would break the very backs of every testing lab to do that. That’s where the multiplexing becomes tremendously valuable because what you’re doing is leveraging the ability to do everything as a single test and single reaction.
Green: You mentioned New York. What other geographies are you active in?
Patel: We’re active in 26 different states including the major cannabis players: Florida, Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington – and we’re also in Canada. We’re currently working to enter other markets, but it all comes down to navigating the regulatory process and getting approval.
We’re not active currently in other international markets yet. We’re currently going through the AOAC approval process for our technology and I’m happy to say that we’re close to getting that in the next couple of months. Beyond that, I think we’ll scale more internationally.
I am delighted to say that we also got FDA EUA federal level authorization of our technology which drives significant credibility and confidence for the use of the technology. About a year ago, we made a conscious choice to make this technology federally acceptable by going into the COVID testing market. We got the FDA EUA back on April 20, ironically. That vote of confidence by the FDA means that our technology is capable of human testing. That has helped to create some runway in terms of getting federalized with both the FDA and the USDA, and certification by AOAC for our different tests.
Green: Was that COVID-19 EUA for clinical diagnostics or surveillance?
Patel: It was for clinical diagnostics, so it’s an actual human diagnostic test.
Green: Last couple of questions here. Once you find something as a cannabis operator, whether its bacteria or fungus, what can you do?
Patel: There are many services that are tied into our ecosystem. For example, we work with Willow Industries, who does remediation.
There’s been a lot of criticism around DNA based technology. It doesn’t matter if it’s qPCR or endpoint PCR. They say, “well, you’re also including dead organisms, dead DNA.” We do have a component of separating live versus dead DNA with a biomechanical process, using an enzyme that we’ve created, and it’s available commercially. Labs can test for whether a pathogen is living or dead and, in many cases, when they find it, they can partner with remediation companies to help address the issue at the grower level.
Another product we offer is an EnviroX test, which is an environmental test of air and surfaces. These have 50 pathogens in a single well. Think about this: these are all the bad actors that typically grow where soil is – the human pathogens, plant pathogens, powdery mildew, Botrytis, Fusarium – these are very problematic for the thousands of growers out there. The idea is to help them with screening technology before samples are pulled off the canopy and go to a regulated lab. We can help the growers isolate where that contamination is in that facility, then the remediation companies can come in, and help them save their crop and avoid economic losses.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Patel: I would prefer that the cannabis industry not go through the same mistakes other industries have gone through. Cannabis started as a cottage industry. It’s obviously doubled every year, and as it gets scaled, the big corporations come in. Sophistication, standards, maturity all help in legitimacy of a business and image of an industry. At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from other industries to really leapfrog and not have to go through the same mistakes. That’s one of the things that’s important to me. I’m very passionate about it.
One thing that I’ll leave you with is this: we’re dealing with more bugs in cannabis than the food industry. The food industry is only dealing with two to four bugs and look at the number of recalls they are navigating – and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cannabis is still a fraction of that and we’re dealing with more bugs. We want to look ahead and avoid these recalls. How do you avoid some of the challenges around antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance? We don’t want to be going down that road if we can avoid it and that’s sort of a personal mission for myself and the company.
Cannabis itself is so powerful, both medicinally as well as recreationally, and it can be beneficial for both consumers and industry image if we do the right things, and avoid future disasters, like the vaping crisis we went through 18 months ago because of bad GMPs. We must learn from those industries. We’re trying to make it better for the right reasons and that’s what’s important to me.
Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Milan.
Patel: Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and your time, Aaron.
Testing cannabis and cannabis derived products for microbiological contamination should be a straightforward conversation for testing labs and producers. However, a patchwork of regulations and a wide variety of perspectives on what we should, or should not, be looking for has left much of the cannabis industry searching for reliable answers.
Organizations like the AOAC are taking the first crack at creating standardization in the field but there is still a long way to go. In this conversation, we would like to discuss the general requirements that almost all states share and where we see the industry headed as jurisdictions start to conform to the recommendations of national organizations like AOAC.
We sat down with Anna Klavins and Jessa Youngblood, two cannabis testing experts at Hardy Diagnostics, to get their thoughts on microbiology testing in the current state of the cannabis industry.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing cannabis testing labs when it comes to microbiology?
Anna Klavins & Jessa Youngblood:For microbiology testing, it comes down to a lack of standardization and approved methods for cannabis. In the US, cannabis regulation is written on a state-by-state level. As a result, the rules that govern every aspect of bringing these materials to market is as unique and varied as the jurisdiction writing them. When we are speaking specifically about microbiology, the question always comes back to yeast and mold testing. For some, the challenge will often be centered on the four main Aspergillus species of concern – A. terreus, A. niger, A. fumigatus, and A. flavus. For others, it will be the challenges of total count testing with yeast, mold, and bacteria. These issues become even more troublesome by the lack of recognized standard methodology. Typically, we expect the FDA, USP, or some other agency to provide the guidelines for industry – the rules that define what is safe for consumption. Without federal guidance, however, we are often in a situation where labs are required to figure out how to perform these tests on their own. This becomes a very real hurdle for many programs.
Q: Why is it important to use two different technologies to achieve confirmation?
Klavins & Youngblood: The push for this approach was borne out of the discussions happening within the industry. Scientists and specialists from across disciplines started getting together and creating groups to start to hash out problems which had arisen due to a lack of standardization. In regards to cannabis testing, implementing a single method for obtaining microbiology results could be unreliable. When clients compared results across labs, the inconsistencies became even more problematic and began to erode trust in the industry. As groups discussed the best way to prove the efficacy of their testing protocol, it quickly became apparent that relying on a single testing method was going to be inadequate. When labs use two different technologies for microbiology testing, they are able to eliminate the likelihood of false positives or false negatives, whichever the case may be. In essence, the cannabis testing laboratories would be best off looking into algorithms of detecting organisms of interest. This is the type of laboratory testing modeled in other industries and these models are starting make their way into the cannabis testing space. This approach is common in many food and pharma applications and makes sense for the fledgling cannabis market as well.
About Anna Klavins
Anna Klavins earned a Molecular and Cellular Biology B.S. degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo while playing for the Cal Poly Division I NCAA women’s tennis team. Since joining Hardy Diagnostics in mid-2016, she has gained experience in FDA submissions [510(k)] for class II microbiology in vitro devices. She has worked on 15 projects which led to a microbiology device becoming FDA cleared. She has recently begun participating in the AOAC Performance Tested Methods program.
About Jessa Youngblood
Jessa Youngblood is the Food, Beverage and Cannabis Market Coordinator for Hardy Diagnostics. A specialist in the field of cannabis microbiology for regulatory compliance, she is seated with the AOAC CASP committee working on standard methods for microbiological testing in cannabis and hemp. She also sits on the NCIA Scientific Advisory Council as well as the ASTM Cannabis Council.
Anyone owning and operating a cannabis business should know the value of proactive compliance management to operate successfully. For consumers, the view into the world “behind the budtending counter” is limited to the cool looking packaging, test results and the overall “vibe” of products they may want to try.
In our experience, as the oldest cannabis compliance firm, we’ve audited and visited hundreds of facilities and have seen the proverbial “Wizard behind the curtain”. We know “how the sausage is made.” And, as one can expect, it’s not always as glamorous in the back of the house as it appears on the shelf.
As markets expand and people buy into existing or new cannabis businesses, amid a world of thousands of competing companies and products, consumers need to ask themselves: “What do I know about the companies and products I consume?”
More and more, the question of consistent quality keeps coming up in the cannabis industry. Recalls are still ongoing in the news as products continually fail testing for potency and contamination.
Colorado, for example, is considered the shining jewel of the US industry in terms of experience, quality and integrity. However, consumers may be shocked to learn that a majority of dispensaries in the state do not operate by stringent SOPs, nor do they verify packaging and labeling for compliance, or review test results of products coming in and going out of their shops.
Starting January 1, 2021, these retailers finally have to develop and implement recall procedures in the event of contaminated products or cannabis that is causing adverse side effects. Later this year, vape pens will finally have their vapor tested instead of just the concentrate therein.
These liabilities or lack of compliance infrastructure may very well be a ticking time bomb no consumer in their right mind would want to deal with.
Bad Product/Brand Experience
Non-compliance and inconsistency on the part of operators translates directly into negative experiences for consumers. Whether its consuming a product that tastes like chlorophyll or enjoying a product the first time only to find a completely different experience the next time around, consumers experience the cost of non-compliance the most.
Beyond products, most consumers recognize their brand experience when shopping for products. Since the invention of Weedmaps, customers have always expressed their like or dislike for particular dispensaries and delivery services. Operators know these reviews from a customer’s experience can make or break their business and brand.
We always tell cannabis operators that a brand is a double-edged sword. As easily as it can strike through competitors, it can just as easily damage one’s own business.
Examples include SweetLeaf and Kushy Punch whose brands, once well-known and popular, are now synonymous with the worst of the worst given their histories of non-compliance and shut downs.
For consumers, finding consistent, quality products at a fair price is often the most important consideration to avoid the cost of a bad experience with cannabis. For visitors or first-time consumers, this could mean the difference between trying cannabis again or deciding it’s simply not for them.
Contamination & Illness
The worst-case scenario for consumers, especially patients, is the cost of consuming contaminated products or otherwise having adverse effects from the use of cannabis. While cannabis itself is one of the least harmful substances known to man, contaminated cannabis can be dangerous or deadly.
In the early days of the industry and in many emerging markets with poor to no oversight, these lessons are learned most severely. From the use of non-commercial washing machines being used for water-based extracts that tested positive for E. coli to recalled products ladened with Eagle 20 (which contains the harmful pesticide known as Myclobutanil), the industry has been reactive to safety measures and complying with best practices.
Still, some states persist with limited to no testing and simply label products with a warning to consumers that they are using cannabis at their own risk without testing for safety or efficacy.
Most consumers may be shocked to know that most cannabis companies do not adhere to good agricultural practices or good manufacturing practices (GAP/GMP) to ensure consistent quality and safety standards in similar industries such as nutraceuticals and food manufacturing.
Patients already weakened by disease states – including auto-immune disorders – are most at risk and understand all too well the costs of hospitalization, medical bills and loss of quality of life. For the average adult user, these risks are the same and there is often little to no recourse with the dispensary or product manufacturers if the product slips through contamination testing because of the non-compliance of product validation on flower or infused products.
For companies, outdated and inaccurate SOPs as well as production batches are the only line of defense to protect the company from product liability lawsuits filed by consumers in the event of contamination and illness. Most cannabis companies do not manage this aspect of their business effectively and simply assume they are sufficiently compliant without proactively measuring such compliance and adjusting operations as necessary.
Consumers would do well to remember that the modern industry is infantile in its development compared to other heavily regulated industries. Cannabis companies are babies learning to crawl while major food and beverage, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical, and alcohol and tobacco industries are far ahead of the game. The US industry, is arguably, already behind the compliance curve comparative to other nations already placing stricter regulations and standards on licensees.
For customers, this can be a confusing experience given that no two batches of flowers will taste the same let alone give a consumer exactly the same effect.
Already, customers are learning Sativa and Indica are imaginary cultural terms to describe generalized characteristics of major and minor cannabinoids and terpenes in each strain which produces a variety of effects – despite state limitations on labeling these active ingredients.
Vape pens are under increasing scrutiny as regulators discover long-term effects of vape use from the tobacco industry causing EVALI in consumers and being deemed as dangerous. As with anything new, the data and science simply aren’t there to truly tell customers what the effects may be over the long run. It has taken decades for tobacco, as an example, to go from doctor-recommended to carcinogenic.
Similarly, Big Cannabis of the future may be facing similar concerns that aren’t being warned about currently on their products and consumers could face unknown long-term consequences. In no way is this a condemnation of cannabis and early research shows cannabis is much safer than either alcohol or tobacco.
The point is to emphasize that over the long run, compliance is key to tracking the consistency and safety of products to avoid long-term liability and costs on consumers. Consumers would be wise to gravitate towards compliant brands and companies that focus on consistent quality and safety to minimize potential long-term negative impacts and costs.
Accountability & Transparency
Customers must first understand where the buck stops and who is responsible for what as it applies to cannabis and the cannabis products they consume. This can vary between states from vertically integrated models to horizontal models which allow for independent businesses to buy and sell cannabis between each other.
In the case of cannabis, the restrictions on METRC and other state “seed to sale” tracking systems make it nearly impossible for customers to return products and unclear on how to file complaints.
METRC and other seed to sale systems dictate that dispensaries must be able to track originating sources of cannabis back to another licensed facility. As such, once the consumer buys a faulty vape pen, for example, it’s gone from the dispensary inventory. Bringing it back in physically creates non-compliance issues for the dispensary as they cannot virtually account for the physical addition back into inventory.
No one ever said making sausage was a pretty or easy process. That’s why most consumers don’t want to think about how it’s done.
This example is a simple one to showcase the importance of compliance in the cannabis business and the complexities businesses must go through to operate. What is more applicable and important for consumers to understand is how non-compliance and inconsistency can affect them negatively – beyond messy fingers from leaky vape carts.
These types of unexpected issues represent significant costs for cannabis operators in recalls, fines, lawsuits and fees which is what most people think the “costs of non-compliance” mean.
However, and in addition to the literal cost mandated by regulation, there are the costs owners don’t think about: in the time and fees charged by the professionals to solve these issues, the time and stress spent on production, the increase or decrease in supply, mitigating product liability, and brand recognition and damage due to poor quality or recalls.
All of these factors simply drive up the costs of products for consumers and decrease the reliability of finding consistent, quality products and brands that customers can count on.
As we always say at iComply:
“It is always more cost-effective to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to operational cannabis compliance management.”
Consumers would be wise to recognize which companies are proactive in managing their compliance. And companies would be wise to get ahead of these customer costs by being the proactively compliant companies that consumers want and need.
The cannabis industry is growing and evolving at an unprecedented pace and regulators, consumers and businesses continually struggle to keep up.
Cannabis businesses: How do you maintain an edge on the market, avoid costly mistakes?
Case Study: Costly Facility Build Out Oversights
David Vaillencourt will be joining a panel discussion, Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation, on December 22 during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference. Click here to register. A vertically integrated multi-state operator wants to produce edibles. The state requires adherence to food safety practices (side note – even if the state did not, adherence to food safety practices should be considered as a major facility and operational requirement). They are already successfully producing flower, tinctures and other oil derivatives. Their architect and MEP firm works with them to design a commercial kitchen for the production of safe edibles. The layout is confirmed, the equipment is specified – everything from storage racks, an oven and exhaust hoods, to food-grade tables. The concrete is poured and walls are constructed. The local health authority comes in to inspect the construction progress, who happens to have a background in industrial food-grade facilities (think General Mills). They remind the company that they must have three-compartment sinks with hot running water for effective cleaning and sanitation, known as clean-out-of-place (COP). The result? Partial demolition of the floor to run pipeline, and a retrofit to make room for the larger sinks, including redoing electrical work and a contentious team debate about the size of the existing equipment that was designed to fit ‘just right.’
Unfortunately, this is just one more common story our team recently witnessed. In this article, I outline a few recommendations and a process (Quality by Design) that could have reduced this and many other issues. For some, following the process may just be the difference between being profitable or going out of business in 2021.
The benefits of Quality by Design are tangible and measurable:
Reduce mistakes that lead to costly re-work
Mitigate inefficient operational flow
Reduce the risk of cross-contamination and product mix-ups. It happens all the time without carefully laid out processes.
Eliminate bottlenecks in your production process
Mitigate the risk of a major recall.
The solution is in the process
Regardless of whether you fall in the category of a food producer, manufacturer of infused products (MIP), food producers, re-packager or even a cultivator, consider the following and ask these questions as a team.
For every process, who is performing it? This may be a single individual or the role of specific people as defined in a job description.
Does the individual(s) performing the process have sufficient education and training? Do you have a diverse team that can provide different perspectives? World class operations are not developed in a vacuum, but rather with a team. Encourage healthy discourse and dialogue.
Is the process defined? Perhaps in a standard operating procedure (SOP) or work instruction (WI). This is not the general guidance an equipment vendor provided you with, this is your process.
How well do you know your process? Does your SOP or WI specify (with numbers) how long to run the piece of equipment, the specification of the raw materials used (or not used) during the process, and what defines a successful output?
Do you have a system in place for when things deviate from the process? Processes are not foolproof. Do not get hung up on deviations from the process, but don’t turn a blind eye to them. Record and monitor them. In time, they will show you clear opportunities for improvement, preventing major catastrophes.
What are the raw materials being used? Where are they coming from (who is your supplier and how did you qualify them)?
Start with the raw materials that create your product or touch your product at all stages of the process. We have seen many cases where cannabis oils fail for heavy metals, specifically lead. Extractors are quick to blame the cultivator and their nutrients, as cannabis is a very effective phytoremediator (it uptakes heavy metals and toxins from soil substrate). The more likely culprit – your glassware! Storing cannabis oil, both work in process or final product in glass jars, while preferred over plastic, requires due diligence on the provider of your glassware. If they change the factory in which it is produced, will you be notified? Stipulate this in your contract. Don’t find yourself in the next cannabis lead recall that gets the attention of the FDA.
Savings is gained through simple control of your raw materials. Variability in your raw material going into the extractor is inevitable, but the more you can do to standardize the quality of your inputs, the less work re-formulating needs to be done downstream. Eliminate the constant need to troubleshoot why yields are lower than expected, or worst case, having to rerun or throw an entire batch out because it was “hot” (either too much THC in the hemp/CBD space or pesticides/heavy metals). These all add up to significant downstream bottlenecks – underutilized equipment, inefficient staff (increase in labor cost) all because of a lack of upstream controls. Use your current process as a starting point, but implement a quality system to drive improvement in operational efficiency and watch your top line grow while your bottom-line decreases.
Have you tested and confirmed the quality of your raw material? This isn’t just does it have THC and is it cannabis, but is it a certain particle size, moisture level, etc.? Again, define the quality of your raw materials (specifications) and test for it.
Remember – ranges are your friend. It is much better to say 9-13% moisture than “about 10%”. For your most diligent extractor, 11% will be unacceptable, but for a guy that just wants to get the job done, 13% just may do!
Test your final product AFTER the process. Again, how does it stack up against your specifications? You may need to have multiple specifications based on different types of raw material. Perhaps one strain with a certain range of cannabinoids and terpenes can be expected for production.
Review the data and trend it. Are you getting lower yields than normal? This may be due to an issue with the equipment, maybe a blockage has formed somewhere, a valve is loose, and simple preventive maintenance will get you back up and running. Or, it could be that the raw biomass quality has changed. Either way, having that data available for review and analysis will allow you to identify the root cause and prevent a surprise failure of your equipment. Murphy’s law applies to the cannabis industry too.
You are able to predict and prevent most failures before they occur
You increase the longevity of your equipment
You are able to predict with a level of confidence – imagine estimating how much product you will product next month and hitting that target – every time!
Business risks are significantly mitigated – a process that spews out metal, concentrates heavy metals or does not kill microbes that were in the raw material is an expensive mistake.
Your employees don’t feel like they are running around with their hair on fire all the time. It’s expensive to train new employees. Reduce your turnover with a less stressed-out team.
Maintaining a competitive edge in the cannabis industry is not easy, but it can be made easier with the right team, tools and data. Our recommendations boil down to a few simple steps:
Make sure you have a chemical or mechanical engineer to understand, optimize and standardize your process (you should have one of these on staff permanently!)
Implement a testing program for all raw materials
Test your raw materials – cannabis flower, solvents, additives, etc. before using. Work with your team to understand what you should and should not test for, and the frequency for doing so. Some materials/vendors are likely more consistent or reliable than others. Test the less reliable ones more frequently (or even every time!)
Test your final product after you extract it – Just because your local regulatory body does not require a certain test, it does not mean you should not look for it. Anything that you specified wanting the product to achieve needs to be tested at an established frequency (and this does not necessarily need to be every batch).
Repeat, and record all of your extraction parameters.
Review, approve and set a system in place for monitoring any changes.
Congratulations, you have just gone through the process of validating your operation. You may now begin to realize the benefits of validating your operation, from your personnel to your equipment and processes.
In this article you will learn how to control pests and improve the health of your cannabis plants using integrated pest management, commonly referred to as IPM. This involves a multi-point strategy – there is no quick fix, nor is there one solution that will wipe out all your pest problems. Proper pest management requires patience, consistency and determination.
It is important to understand that not all pesticides are bad. While many are incredibly harmful not only to pests, but also humans, in this article I will educate you about some of the safer alternatives to traditional pesticides. It is possible to safely control unwanted pests in your cannabis garden without harming yourself, your employees or the natural habitat around you.
Every cultivation facility should have a well-thought-out plan for their pest management program. This program should account for the prevention, and if necessary, eradication of: spider mites, russet mites, fungus gnats, root aphids, thrips and caterpillars. These are just a few of the more common pests you’ll find in a cannabis garden. There could also be many other less commonly known bugs, so you have to be vigilant in looking closely at your plants, and the soil, at all times. Complete eradication of a targeted pest can be difficult. Once a pest has established itself, decimating or decreasing the population will require an aggressive regimen that includes spraying daily to control populations and prevent other pests from getting established.
Spraying or applying pesticides to the foliage of plants isn’t the only way to control or eradicate pest populations. There are many other ways that you can minimize the spread of pests without the use of pesticides. In greenhouse and outdoor grows, growing specific types of plants around the cultivation area will attract both beneficial and predator bugs that will naturally control pest populations. Some plants that attract these bugs are: mint, peppers, and marigold. Beneficial and predator bugs, such as ladybugs, predator wasps and predator mites, can control unwanted pest populations in the area before they even have a chance to become a problem in your garden. Plants and flowers that attract bees, birds and insects will also create helpful bio- diversity, making it more difficult for the unwanted pests to thrive.
For indoor cultivation, it is imperative that you have your cultivation facility set up for a proper workflow. If you already have pests, you need to make sure you are not contaminating the rest of your facility when going from one area to the next. Make sure that you only go to contaminated areas at the very end of your day, and when you’re done working in that area, you must immediately exit the building. Do not ever walk back through the uncontaminated parts of your facility or the pests will spread quickly.
When most people think of pests in their cannabis garden they think of the more common varieties: spider mites, russet mites, aphids and thrips. However, there are also soil-dwelling pests that can exist, without your knowledge. These will decrease the health and vigor of your plants, without you even knowing they’re there, if you’re not careful to check for them. Some of the soil dwelling pests that plague cannabis plants are: root aphids, fungus gnat larvae and grubs. It is just as important to control the pests below the soil, feeding on your roots, as it is to control the pests that feed above soil on your plants.
Maintaining healthy plants is essential to controlling pest populations, both on the foliage and below the soil. Healthy plants will have an easier time fighting off pests than unhealthy plants. Plants have immune systems just like humans, and the stronger the plant’s immune system, the more likely it will be able to ward off pests and diseases. Allowing a plant to reach its full potential, by minimizing pests, means your plants will also have a better quality, smell and flavor, not to mention a bigger yield.
Worker Safety, Regulation and REI times
The application of pesticides requires certification from the state agricultural department. In certain situations, depending on the type of pesticide and method of application, a license may even be required. The application of pesticides without proper certification is against the law. Applying pesticides in a manner that is not in accordance with the label and instructions is also a violation of law.
The proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is required for anybody handling, mixing or applying pesticides. Employees can be a liability to your company if they are applying pesticides improperly. Make sure you and your entire staff are well educated about pesticide use requirements and limitations, prior to usage, and that only a properly certified person is handling the mixing and application at your facility.
After a pesticide is applied, you must abide by the re-entry interval (REI). This is the required time period limiting all workers from re-entry into areas where pesticides have been applied. This time period will vary depending on the type of pesticide used and the method of application. In some instances, pesticides applied in the last 30 days may require employee training before work can be done in those areas.
The misuse of or improper handling of pesticides is not only unlawful and dangerous to human health, but can also cause environmental damage to waterways and wildlife. The direct effects of pesticides on wildlife include acute poisoning, immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive failure, altered morphology and growth rates and changes in behavior. Pesticides can indirectly impact wildlife through reduction of food resources and refuses, starvation due to decreased prey availability, hypothermia and secondary poisoning. Section 1602 of the California Fish and Game Code governs requirements for permitting of any project where pesticides will be used, and strictly regulates the disposal of all waste and run-off. It is imperative to know the regulations and to abide by them, or heavy fines will ensue!
Using Pesticides in a Regulated Market
Knowing which pesticides you can’t use, to avoid failing mandatory state testing, is just as important as knowing which ones you can use safely to pass required testing. Most states with regulated markets have strict limitations on the pesticides that can be used in cannabis cultivation. Pesticide use in the cultivation of cannabis is the most strictly regulated in the agriculture industry; the pesticides allowed for use in cannabis cultivation are far more limited than any other crop.
Just because a product is certified organic does not mean that it can be used, or that it is safe to be consumed or ingested. Oftentimes when cannabis flower alone is tested it will not fail or show a detectable amount of pesticides or heavy metals. However, when that flower is turned into concentrates, banned substances are then detected in testing, leading to test failures.
Cannabis cultivation facilities that are located on land that was previously used for conventional agriculture, or located near vineyards or other agricultural crops that are heavily sprayed with harmful pesticides, run a very high-risk failing testing. This is because of either spray drift from nearby agriculture, or residual pesticides and heavy metals left in the soil from previous crops that were using pesticides banned for cannabis cultivation. Accordingly, if you’re going to be growing outdoors or in a greenhouse, it is imperative that you get a soil and water test prior to cultivation, so you can determine if there is any potential for test failures due to pesticides or heavy metals in the soil or water in that area.
Proper Application – Using the Right Tools in the Right Way at the Right Time
One of the most important factors in pest management is proper identification of pests and proper application and coverage of pesticides. It does not require an entomology degree to identify insects, these days there is a lot of information online that can help you identify cannabis pests. Proper identification of insects can make the difference between success and failure. With a good eye and a microscope, if you do your research, you can control most insects in your garden.
In order to control pests in your garden you must get proper coverage of the foliage of the plant when you are applying pesticides. There are different types of equipment that are commonly used to apply pesticides in cannabis cultivation: backpack sprayers, foggers, and airless paint sprayers are the most common. An alternative method involves using an automated dosing system such as a dosatron, which injects fertilizer or pesticides at a specific ratio into your water lines, allowing you to use only the exact amount of pesticide you need. That way you avoid wasting money on unused pesticides. It is also safer for employees because it minimizes employee exposure, since there is no mixing required, and it allows for a large volume to be sprayed, without refilling a tank or a backpack sprayer.
No matter what you are using you must ensure you get the proper coverage on your plants in order to control pests. The temperature and humidity of your cultivation area, as well as the PH and temperature of the pesticide solution, all factor into the success of your IPM. For example, PFR 97 needs to be applied at a higher humidity range, around 70% to be most effective. In some areas this is not possible so repeated applications may be required to ensure the application is effective. A high PH or alkaline PH can cause alkaline hydrolysis which will make your pesticide solution less effective and will dictate how long your pesticides remain effective after they are mixed. It is therefore important to use your pesticide solution as soon as you make it; don’t let it sit around for long periods of time before use or it will be less effective.
In cannabis cultivation there are two different primary growth cycles: vegetative and flower. These cycles require different IPM strategies. In general, during the flowering cycle, pesticides should not be applied after the second week, with some limited exceptions i.e. for outdoor cultivation there is a longer window to spray since the flower set takes longer than a plant being grown inside, or in a light deprivation greenhouse, where there is a 12/12 flowering cycle.
For the vegetative (non-flowering) cycle, a strict rotation of foliage spray applications targeting not only pests, but also molds and pathogens, will be necessary to avoid a quick onset of infestation. Starting with an immaculate vegetation room is crucial to maintaining pest and mold free plants in the flowering cycle. Preventative sprays that are safe for use include: safer soap (contact kill) for soft bodied chewing insects; Regalia (biological control) for powdery mildew; and PFR 97 (biological control) for soft bodied chewing insects. It is also helpful to spray kelp, which strengthens the cell walls of plants, making the plant healthier, and thus enabling the plant to better defend itself from pests and diseases. Also, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is useful to prevent or kill caterpillars.
The best way to control a pest infestation in the flowering cycle is at the very beginning on day one. You must start aggressively, with a three-way control consisting of a contact kill and preventative during days 1-14; preventative and biological control during days 10-18; and then release predator bugs on day 25, for optimal results. Knocking back the population with an effective contact kill pesticide early on is essential to ultimately lowering populations throughout the grow cycle, so that you can spray a biological control to preclude them from returning, before you release the predatory bugs at the end of the cycle.
Biological controls can take anywhere from 3 to 10 days before they are effective. Biological pesticides are selected strains of bacteria or fungus. When the plant tissue is eaten by a targeted pest, the bacteria kills the pest from the inside providing control without having to spray pesticides repeatedly. Predator bugs are the last line of defense, used in late flowering. They can be used indoors, outdoors and in greenhouses. An example of a common predator bug is Amblyseius californicus used to control low populations of spider mites, but there are many different varieties and they are specific depending on the type of pest population you seek to control.
A common concern with the use of predatory bugs, is whether they will be present when the flowers are harvested. However, if there is no food for the bugs (i.e. pests) the predator bugs will leave in search of food elsewhere. Further, indoor predator bugs are usually very small in size and difficult to see to an untrained eye. It is very unlikely to see any signs of predator bugs near the end of the flowering cycle, or in the finished flower product. Even when using bigger predator bugs, the bugs will leave the plants when harvested and dried.
Having pests can be very stressful. It is not uncommon to have bugs, pests, rodents, animals and birds cause damage in cannabis gardens. Making an informed decision based on science and not on unproven assumptions can determine how successful you are at pest management. There are many factors that go into pest management and no one situation is the same. You must be dedicated and consistent; pest management never stops. You will always have something ready to invade your garden. Prepare, plan, prevent and repeat!
The journal Frontiers in Plant Science recently shared an important article from researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, highlighting the “Pathogens and Molds Affecting Production and Quality of Cannabis Sativa.”
As a chemist focused on the science of preventing and mitigating mold in greenhouse and indoor cannabis grow facilities, this piece was fascinating to me. Like many others, it details and explains prevalent mold like Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus – things I see in grows every day.
But wait, there’s more fungi
The research and resulting article also brought up another type of fungi – endophytic mold. Endophytic mold usually lives symbiotically with plants, or is at least beneficial for both plant and fungi.
But not always.
In the past, the industry has believed that damaging mold spores were found on the outside of the flower. When moved, that flower would release the spores and send them flying – often creating massive cross-contamination issues for indoor grows.
“While cannabis is an incredibly powerful plant in terms of its medicinal properties, it is unfortunately highly susceptible to many pest and pathogens,” says Hope Jones, PhD, CEO, Adivina & ECS. “And it is this susceptibility that is so challenging to many inexperienced or undisciplined grow operations.”
Now, however, we know that there’s another culprit to add to the list: the inner parts of the plant can also be a source of endophytic cross contamination and mold.
Since it grows inside of the plant, this fungus creates high spore counts that can cross contaminate from outside, into the flower.
Treating mold in a facility
Here’s the good news:
This seemingly bad news – that there’s a new fungus to worry about, and it is inside the flower – may actually help cannabis grows struggling with mold, and those who are following the proper protocols already.
Effective mitigation protocols can include things like treating HVAC systems, controlling humidity, using products like chlorine dioxide to treat irrigation lines, enforcing protective clothing and shoe covers for employees, reducing the amount of in-and-out for employees around grow rooms.
These are important upstream and environmentally-focused integrated pest management (IPM) programs that will usually keep facilities clean and relatively mold-free.
But if these programs are in place, and there’s still an issue, Endophytic fungi may be to blame.
If you are having ongoing mold issues but have ruled out cross-contamination and a facility without proper protocol, look to the mother plant.
“Small mistakes in agricultural practices are amplified with cannabis,” Dr. Jones continues. “And today’s propagation practices of traditional cloning add to this vulnerability. Cannabis is an annual plant and by keeping mothers in a perpetual state of vegetative growth for years, and taking repetitive cuttings produces clones in a highly stressed state. This stressed state diminishes genetic potential and weakens a plant’s ability to fight disease and pests.”
Testing for and addressing endophytic fungi
If these concerns are ringing a bell, remember, there is also a way to test for Endophytic mold.
Checking cuttings from suspected mother plants over a period of time is the best way to see if the Endophytic mold is present.
A section of the mother plant cutting is placed into a solution (for example, as outlined by the article, a very concentrated hypochlorite followed by 70% Ethanol) that will kill all of the microorganisms that are present on the surface of the plant tissues.
From there, an unadulterated dissection of the internal tissues can be extracted and cultured for quantification and identification of endophytic fungi.
“Tissue culture offers a form of genetic rebooting returning the plant to its natural genetic potential and thereby strengthening its natural ability to defend against environment assault,” says Dr. Jones. “It also allows the breeder to conduct pathogenic disease testing which provides the entire industry with a higher level of scientific certainty and analysis.”
If you find this mold inside of the mother plant, your facility’s mold problem could be a systemic issue, not an environmental one.
If you do find that Endophytic mold is causing issues, of course, you may have to destroy the mother plant.
This should not mean the end of a strain. Tissue culture on a cutting is an option that can eliminate the unwanted fungi and save the genetics. Using those genetics to regrow a mother will start fresh and avoid the intrinsic mold that was plaguing the strain prior.
The practice of checking mother plants for Endophytic mold is not yet commonplace in cannabis, but the hemp business is leading the way.
They’re testing to create very clean plants, so you don’t have issues during cultivation.
Major growers in the U.S. could save millions in lost harvests with mold mitigation. If your current IPM program isn’t doing the trick, you may want to follow in hemp’s footsteps and look inside the plant.
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