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extraction equipment

The Hidden Costs of Non-Compliance for Consumers

By Mark Slaugh
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extraction equipment

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

control the room environment
Preventing contamination can save a business from extremely costly recalls.

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.

Long-Term Consequences

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.

Consistency in quality standards requires meticulous SOPs

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.

extraction equipment
Consumers should ask cannabis companies about their product quality standards

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.

Facility Considerations for Cultivation & Manufacturing: A Case Study

By David Vaillencourt
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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:

  1. Reduce mistakes that lead to costly re-work
  2. Mitigate inefficient operational flow
  3. Reduce the risk of cross-contamination and product mix-ups. It happens all the time without carefully laid out processes.
  4. Eliminate bottlenecks in your production process
  5. 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.

People

Food processing and sanitation
By standardizing and documenting safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns

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.

Process

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.

Materials

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.

Consistency in quality standards requires meticulous SOPs

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.

Rememberranges 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.

  1. You are able to predict and prevent most failures before they occur
  2. You increase the longevity of your equipment
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Takeaways

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:

  1. 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!)
  2. Implement a testing program for all raw materials
    1. 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!)
  3. 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).
  4. Repeat, and record all of your extraction parameters.
  5. 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.

The Beginner’s Guide to Integrated Pest Management

By David Perkins
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Formulating a Plan

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.

An aphid on a plant in a greenhouse

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.

The author, David Perkins, In his greenhouse after using insect killing soap.

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.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

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.

Starting with an immaculate vegetation room is crucial to maintaining pest and mold free plants in the 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!

Soapbox

Clean Grow Still Failing? Check for Endophytic Mold

By Bernie Lorenz, PhD
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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.

Hope Jones, PhD, CEO of Adivina & ECS

“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.

A petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis Photo credit: Steep Hill

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.

A large tissue culture facility run in the Sacramento area that produces millions of nut and fruit trees clones a year.

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.

Growing knowledge

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.

control the room environment

Food Safety: What it Means and How ERP Helps Edibles Manufacturers

By Daniel Erickson
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control the room environment

The diverse cannabis industry has experienced tremendous growth, especially in the popular edibles market whether consumed recreationally or medicinally. Since these cannabis-infused food and beverage products come in a variety of forms, including candies, baked goods, energy drinks, chips, chocolates and teas, food safety questions and concerns for companies manufacturing these products can seem daunting. ERP software solutions designed for the cannabis industry play an imperative and necessary role in addressing key food safety issues for edibles producers, helping to fill in the gaps where new and established businesses struggle. By mitigating the potential for damaging effects of a food safety event, companies can prevent, or greatly lessen the impact, to both their reputation and public perception, as well as limit the financial liability and legal penalties.

What is safety?

On a fundamental level, safety is the state of being protected from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss. As a manufacturer of cannabis edibles, it is critical that products are consistent, labeled appropriately and safe for consumers. Forward-thinking companies are employing ERP solutions to help ensure their products are not harmful to their current and future customers.

FDAlogoA lack of safety in the cannabis edibles market stems from the unregulated nature of the industry on a federal level, despite consumers’ expectations otherwise. Similar to products in the food and beverage industry, safety issues with inaccurate labeling, food-borne pathogens and disease outbreaks are all concerns within the manufacturing environment. Particularly to cannabis businesses, extraction methods, bacteria and mold growth, pest and pesticide contamination, chemical exposure, improper employee handling and the unintentional consumption or overconsumption of edibles are all potential safety concerns. In states where edible products are legal, local municipalities and state governments each have their own unique regulations – requiring manufacturers to comply to different guidelines. With the absence of federal regulations, many cannabis companies have adopted a more conservative approach to food safety. Following U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines and Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) best practices allows manufacturers to address key current food safety issues and prepare for future regulation.

Utilize Best Practices and ERPGMP

Introducing current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP’s) traditionally implemented in the food and beverage industry help to form a foundation for cannabis edibles safety in 9 key areas:

  1. Personnel – As an often-overlooked aspect of cannabis edibles manufacturing, adequate training on procedures to ensure disease control and proper cleanliness is required to maintain a company culture of safety. Advocating for quality standards with proper safety procedures should be a priority for every employee.
  2. Manufacturing Environment – Effective management of the manufacturing environment ensures that facilities are controlled to prevent the contamination of finished goods – restricting extraneous materials such as glass, metal, rubber, etc. from the production floor. Warehouse and office lighting should be adequately maintained so that employees are able to inspect equipment, by-products and finished goods and conduct their jobs effectively.
  3. Sanitary Operations – Physical facilities and all equipment must be maintained in clean and sanitary conditions and kept in good repair to prevent food and beverages from becoming contaminated. Cleaning processes should protect ingredients, work in progress, finished goods and workspaces from potential contamination.
  4. Sanitary Facilities and Controls – Effective control of water, plumbing, sewage disposal and drainage are essential. Staff must have access to adequate handwashing and restroom facilities and employee changing rooms. Restrooms and break rooms should be clean and stocked at all times, while garbage is handled properly and disposed of in a timely manner.
  5. Equipment and Utensils – Properly cleaning and maintaining vats, conveyor belts, shrink wrap machines, blenders, etc. to avoid contamination and allergen cross-contact ensures safe procedures are being followed. A robust sanitation program with defined cleaning schedules should be followed for the sanitizing of utensils and equipment.
  6. Processes and Controls – The manufacturing of edible products should be done in accordance with best practices established in the food and beverage industry, taking account of sanitation, quality control and protection from allergens and contamination. Ongoing testing is conducted to identify sanitation failures and contamination occurrences and ensure items are discarded properly.

    control the room environment
    Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can reduce the risks of contamination
  7. Warehousing and Distribution – Establishing proper storage and transportation processes protects the products from contamination, allergen cross-contact and container deterioration – ensuring proper handling procedures throughout the growing, manufacturing and distribution steps.
  8. Defect Action Levels – Quality control is used to minimize defects by requiring an action response when a problem is discovered. An established response plan demonstrates the proper procedures to follow when defects occur during production.
  9. Holding and Distribution of By-products for use as Animal Food (if applicable) – This applies to food and beverage facilities that either donate or sell a by-product for use as animal food. By-products used for animal consumption that are managed properly remain free from contamination. Accurate labeling should identify by-product by the common or usual name and denote not for human consumption when distributed.

Cannabis-specific ERP solutions efficiently provide the structure, integration and processes to follow cGMP’s to address food safety concerns in all phases of growing, manufacturing and distribution. By automating the documentation of audit trails, edibles companies are equipped with the same tools that food and beverage manufacturers have utilized for decades. Validated procedures and best practices incorporate safety initiatives from cannabis cultivation to the sale of edible products and beyond, offering greater efficiency than manual methods. Since cGMP’s provide a foundation for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) planning, edibles manufacturers are able to take advantage of incorporating control points into the ERP solution to prevent and control hazards before they affect food safety. Having a HACCP Plan, along with proper implementation and adherence to cGMP’s, helps to minimize food safety hazards for edibles manufacturers in the cannabis industry.

Quality and safety in the cannabis edibles market is an area that cannot be ignored, as the consequences for failing to handle hazards are potentially devastating. Savvy cannabis companies are employing best practices of food and beverage manufacturers, including the 9 addressed above, in tandem with an ERP software solution, to effectively navigating this highly competitive market. Paving the way with their commitment to quality and in delivering safe and consistent products to the market demonstrates to customers and investors alike their preparedness for growth.

Steven Burton

Standardization: A Guide Through the Minefield

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

Now that cannabis edibles have been legalized nationally in Canada, many existing and aspiring license holders have been surprised to discover that they must comply with food safety regulations. This became crystal clear when Health Canada published their Good Production Practices Guide For Cannabis in August 2019.

With this development, it should be obvious to everyone that Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certifications are simply not enough.

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) based preventative control programs are now the absolute minimum and higher levels of certification (GFSI) should be on everyone’s wish list.

HACCP is a methodology that is all about identifying biological, chemical and physical hazards and determining how they will be controlled to mitigate the risk of injury to humans. Recently, bio-terrorism and food fraud hazards have been added to the list and it is a good idea to address quality hazards as well.

The process of developing a HACCP program involves identifying these hazards with respect to ingredients, materials, packaging, processes and cross-contamination points (explicitly required in Canada only). However, it is a specific ingredient hazard that I’d like to talk about here.

HACCPAs this market has emerged, I’ve met with many cannabis companies as the onerous levels of knowledge and effort required to build and maintain an effective HACCP program manually has dawned upon the industry. Many are looking for technological solutions to quickly solve this problem. During these discussions, a curious fact has emerged that set off the food safety alarm klaxons around here.

Most people alive today are too young to remember this but, with few exceptions, the standardization of ingredients is a relatively modern phenomenon. It used to be that the fat content of your milk varied from season to season and cow to cow. Over time, the food industry standardized so that, amazingly, you can now choose between milks with either 1% or 2% fat, a level of precision that would border on miraculous to someone born in the early 20th century.

The standardization of ingredients is important in terms of both quality and safety. Take alcohol for example. We know that a shot of spirits generally contains 40% alcohol. Different products may vary from this standard but, if I pour a shot of my favourite Bowmore No.1 single malt in Canada or Tasmania, this year or 10 years from now, I can expect a consistent effect from the 40% alcohol content of the quantity I’ve imbibed.

Imagine a world in which this was not the case, where one shot would be 40% but the next might be 80%. Things could get out of control quite easily at the 80% level so, to avoid this, distillers monitor and blend their product to ensure they achieve the 40% target, which is called the “standardization marker”.

With respect to cannabis, the obvious standardization marker is THC. During the manufacturing process, edibles manufacturers do not normally add cannabis flower directly into their products but instead add a THC concentrate produced during previous production steps. However, we’ve found that the wisdom of standardizing these concentrates has not yet dawned upon many in the industry, which is alarming at best and dangerous at worst.

The reason for this is that, since cannabis is inherently a heterogeneous plant, one cannot precisely achieve a particular marker value so the outcome of the concentration process is variable. The food industry long ago overcame this problem by blending or diluting to achieve a consistent marker concentration, but the cannabis industry has not yet adopted this advance.

The cannabis edibles industry is still immature and it will take time to bring all the necessary risk mitigation processes into place but one excellent place to start is to seriously consider standardizing concentrates to a THC marker.Instead, manufacturers simply keep track of the strength of each batch of concentrate and then adjust the quantity added to their recipes to achieve the desired THC content. This seems logical on the surface but presents a serious risk from the HACCP perspective, namely a chemical hazard, “Excessive psychoactive compound concentrations due to human error at levels that may be injurious to human health”.

The reality is that workers make mistakes, which is why it is imperative to mitigate the risk of human error insomuch as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to standardize to avoid the scenario where a worker, faced with a row of identical containers that are differentiated only by a tiny bit of text, accidentally grabs the wrong bottle. The error isn’t caught until the product has been shipped, consumed, and reports of hospital visits start coming in after the authorities trace the problem back to you. You must bear the costs of the recall, your reputation has been decimated and your company is floundering on the financial rocks.

US-based Drip More, LP recently found this out the hard way after consumers complained that their product tasted bad, bitter and/or harsh. An investigation determined that excessive nicotine content was the source of the problem and a voluntary recall was initiated. Affected product that had already been sold in 26 states. The costs of this recall have not been tallied but they will be staggering.

The cannabis edibles industry is still immature and it will take time to bring all the necessary risk mitigation processes into place but one excellent place to start is to seriously consider standardizing concentrates to a THC marker. This strategy is cheap, easy and you’ll never be sorry.

Soapbox

3 Food Safety Precautions for Edibles

By Cindy Rice
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You’ve survived seasons of cannabis cultivations, bringing in quality plants in spite of mold, mites, drought and other challenges that had to be conquered. Extraction methods are sometimes challenging, but you are proud to have a cannabinoid extract that can be added into your own products for sale. Edibles are just waiting to be infused with the cannabinoids, for consumers demanding brownies, gummies, tinctures and almost any food and beverage imaginable. You’ve been through the fire, and now the rest is easy peasy, right?

Food processing and sanitation
Avoiding cross contamination should be a priority for edibles manufacturing

Actually, producing edibles may not be so seamless as you think. Just as in the rest of the food industry, food safety practices have to be considered when you’re producing edibles for public consumption, regardless of the THC, CBD, terpene or cannabinoid profile. Once you’ve acquired the extract (a “food grade ingredient”) containing the active compounds, there are three types of hazards that could still contribute to foodborne illness from your final product if you’re not careful- Biological, Chemical and Physical.

Biological hazards include pathogenic bacteria, viruses, mold, mildew (and the toxins that they can produce) that can come in ingredients naturally or contaminate foods from an outside source. Chemical hazards are often present in the kitchen environment, including detergents, floor cleaners, disinfectants and caustic chemicals, which can be harmful if ingested- they are not destroyed through cooking. Physical objects abound in food production facilities, including plastic bits, metal fragments from equipment, staples or twist ties from ingredient packages, and personal objects (e.g., buttons, jewelry, hair, nails.)

There are three main safety precautions that can help control these hazards during all the stages of food production, from receiving ingredients to packaging your final products:

1. Avoid Cross Contamination

  • Prevent biological, chemical or physical hazards from coming into contact with foods
  • Keep equipment, utensils and work surfaces clean and sanitized.
  • Prevent raw foods (as they usually carry bacteria) from coming into contact with “Ready-to-eat” foods (foods that will not be cooked further before consuming).
  • Keep chemicals away from food areas.

2. Personal Hygiene

  • Don’t work around foods if you’re sick with fever, vomiting or diarrhea. These could be signs of contagious illness and can contaminate foods or other staff, and contribute to an outbreak.
  • Do not handle ready-to-eat foods with bare hands, but use a barrier such as utensils, tissues or gloves when handling final products such as pastries or candies.
  • Wash hands and change gloves when soiled or contaminated.
  • Wear hair restraints and clean uniforms, and remove jewelry from hands and arms.

3. Time & Temperature control

  • Prevent bacterial growth in perishable foods such as eggs, dairy, meats, chicken (TCS “Time and Temperature Control for Safety” foods according to the FDA Model Food Code) by keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
  • Refrigerate TCS foods at 41˚ F or below, and cook TCS foods to proper internal temperatures to kill bacteria to safe levels, per state regulations for retail food establishments.
  • If TCS foods have been exposed to room temperature for longer than four hours (Temperature Danger Zone 41˚ F – 135˚ F,) these foods should be discarded, as bacteria could have grown to dangerous levels during this time.

As cannabis companies strive for acceptance and legalization on a federal level, adopting these food safety practices and staff training is a major step in the right direction, on par with standards maintained by the rest of the retail food industry. The only difference is your one specially extracted cannabinoid ingredient that separates you from the rest of the crowd… with safe and healthy edibles for all.

Risks of Bare Concrete Flooring in Cannabis Grow Rooms & Greenhouses

By Kendall Youngworth
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With legalization rapidly increasing across states, the cannabis market is exploding. And with estimates of sales in the billions, it’s no surprise that greenhouses and grow rooms are emerging everywhere. As growers and extracting facilities continue to expand one important consideration that most tend to underestimate, is how flooring can impact both their production and product. Bare concrete is often a popular choice in cannabis facilities, as there are typically very minimal costs−if any at all−associated with preparing it for use. However, concrete floors can pose unique challenges when left untreated, which could inadvertently create unforeseen problems and unexpected costs.

Understanding the Risks of Bare Concrete Flooring

Whether a facility is growing or extracting, the proper flooring can play a critical role in helping maintain optimal safety and sanitation standards, while simultaneously contributing to production. That’s why its important for growers and extractors to know and understand the potential risks associated with bare concrete.

Concrete is porous: While concrete is a solid material, people may forget that it is porous. Unfortunately, these pores can absorb liquids and harbor small particles that spill on the floor. They create perfect hiding places for bacteria and other pathogens to proliferate. Pathogens can then contaminate product within the facility, causing a halt on production, and/or a potential product recall. This can incur unexpected costs associated with shutdown time and loss of product.

Light-colored white or pastel floor surfaces in glossy finishes can help reduce the amount of energy needed to properly illuminate grow rooms.

Concrete can be damp: When in a facility with an untreated concrete floor, at times the slab can feel slightly wet or damp to touch. This is due to moisture within the concrete that can eventually work its way up to the surface of the slab. When this happens, items that are placed on top of the floor can be damaged by trapped moisture above the slab and below the object. When this happens, if a product is not protected properly, it can be damaged.

Concrete is dark and unreflective: An untreated concrete slab can often make a room feel dark and it does not reflect lighting within the room. This can result in the need for extra lights and electricity to properly grow cannabis.

Concrete lacks texture: When working in areas where water and other liquids can fall to the ground and accumulate, flooring with traction can play a key role in helping aid against slip and fall incidents. Untreated concrete typically does not provide sufficient texture and can become very slippery when wet.

The Benefits of Bare Concrete Flooring

While the previously mentioned risks can be associated with bare concrete flooring, there is an upside to the situation! Concrete is the perfect substrate for adding a coating that is built to withstand the industry’s demands.

Non-porous flooring options are impervious in nature, helping to isolate contaminants on the surface, thus enabling proper cleanup and disposal.

With the application of a fluid-applied or resinous floor coating, the risks of bare concrete flooring can be mitigated. There are a variety of resin and fluid-based coating systems that can be applied, such as:

  • Epoxy and Urethane Systems
  • Urethane Mortar Systems
  • Decorative Quartz Systems
  • Decorative Flake Systems

These durable coatings have numerous benefits and can offer:

  • Protection against the proliferation bacteria and other pathogens: Unlike porous concrete, a smooth and virtually seamless floor coating eliminates the little crevices where pathogens can grow. This in turn helps aid against the growth of bacteria, keeping hygiene standards at the forefront and grow rooms in full operations.
  • Protection against moisture damage: As moisture within the concrete can move upward to the surface of the slab, there are moisture mitigation coating systems, that keep it trapped below the surface, thus helping toprotect items placed on the floor.
  • Brighter spaces and light reflection: Installing a floor coating that is light in color, such as white or light gray, can help brighten any space. The benefits of this are twofold: First, it can help with visibility, helping employees navigate the space safely. Secondly, light reflectivity of the flooring improves lighting efficiency, resulting in fewer light fixtures and smaller electric costs.
  • Texture options to help aid against slip and fall incidents: Floor coating systems can offer a variety of texture options−from light grit to heavy grit−depending on how much accumulated water and foot traffic the area receives. Without additional texture in wet areas, slip and fall incidents and injuries are inevitable.
  • A wide range of colors and decorative systems: These coating systems can be designed to match the aesthetics of the building or corporate colors. Some manufacturers even offer color matching upon request. When it comes to colors, the options are virtually endless.

Choosing the Right Flooring: Considering Bare Concrete

Choosing the right flooring for a cannabis greenhouse or processing facility requires important consideration as every grow room and greenhouse is different. Bare concrete is a popular flooring option for manufacturing and processing facilities across industries, however, as discussed, it can pose unique challenges due to its innate nature. That said, by taking the right steps to ensure that the concrete substrate is properly sealed, it can then be an effective and hygienic flooring option, offering high durability and a longer life cycle.

Rapid Pathogen Detection for the 21st Century: A Look at PathogenDx

By Aaron G. Biros
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In 1887, Julius Petri invented a couple of glass dishes, designed to grow bacteria in a reproducible, consistent environment. The Petri dish, as it came to be known, birthed the scientific practice of agar cultures, allowing scientists to study bacteria and viruses. The field of microbiology was able to flourish with this handy new tool. The Petri dish, along with advancements in our understanding of microbiology, later developed into the modern field of microbial testing, allowing scientists to understand and measure microbial colonies to detect harmful pathogens in our food and water, like E. coli and Salmonella, for example.

The global food supply chain moves much faster today than it did in the late 19th century. According to Milan Patel, CEO of PathogenDx, this calls for something a little quicker. “Traditional microbial testing is tedious and lengthy,” says Patel. “We need 21st century pathogen detection solutions.”

Milan Patel first joined the parent company of PathogenDx back in 2012, when they were more focused on clinical diagnostics. “The company was predominantly built on grant funding [a $12 million grant from the National Institute of Health] and focused on a niche market that was very specialized and small in terms of market size and opportunity,” says Patel. “I realized that the technology had a much greater opportunity in a larger market.”

Milan Patel, CEO of PathogenDx
Photo: Michael Chansley

He thought that other markets could benefit from that technology greatly, so the parent company licensed the technology and that is how PathogenDx was formed. Him and his team wanted to bring the product to market without having to obtain FDA regulatory approval, so they looked to the cannabis market. “What we realized was we were solving a ‘massive’ bottleneck issue where the microbial test was the ‘longest test’ out of all the tests required in that industry, taking 3-6 days,” says Patel. “We ultimately realized that this challenge was endemic in every market – food, agriculture, water, etc. – and that the world was using a 140-year-old solution in the form of petri dish testing for microbial organisms to address challenges of industries and markets demanding faster turnaround of results, better accuracy, and lower cost- and that is the technology PathogenDx has invented and developed.”

While originally a spinoff technology designed for clinical diagnostics, they deployed the technology in cannabis testing labs early on. The purpose was to simplify the process of testing in an easy approach, with an ultra-low cost and higher throughput. Their technology delivers microbial results in less than 6 hours compared to 24-36 hours for next best option.

The PathogenDx Microarray

Out of all the tests performed in a licensed cannabis testing laboratory, microbial tests are the longest, sometimes taking up to a few days. “Other tests in the laboratory can usually be done in 2-4 hours, so growers would never get their microbial testing results on time,” says Patel. “We developed this technology that gets results in 6 hours. The FDA has never seen something like this. It is a very disruptive technology.”

When it comes to microbial contamination, timing is everything. “By the time Petri dish results are in, the supply chain is already in motion and products are moving downstream to distributors and retailers,” Patel says. “With a 6-hour turnaround time, we can identify where exactly in the supply chain contaminant is occurring and spreading.”

The technology is easy to use for a lab technician, which allows for a standard process on one platform that is accurate, consistent and reproduceable. The technology can deliver results with essentially just 12 steps:

  1. Take 1 gram of cannabis flower or non-flower sample. Or take environmental swab
  2. Drop sample in solution. Swab should already be in solution
  3. Vortex
  4. Transfer 1ml of solution into 1.5ml tube

    A look at how the sample is added to the microarray
  5. Conduct two 3-minute centrifugation steps to separate leaf material, free-floating DNA and create a small pellet with live cells
  6. Conduct cell lysis by adding digestion buffer to sample on heat blocks for 1 hour
  7. Conduct Loci enhancement PCR of sample for 1 hour
  8. Conduct Labelling PCR which essentially attaches a fluorescent tag on the analyte DNA for 1 hour
  9. Pipette into the Multiplex microarray well where hybridization of sample to probes for 30 minutes
  10. Conduct wash cycle for 15 minutes
  11. Dry and image the slide in imager
  12. The imager will create a TIFF file where software will analyze and deliver results and a report

Their DetectX product can test for a number of pathogens in parallel in the same sample at the same time down to 1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram. For bacteria, the bacterial kit can detect E. coli, E. coli/Shigella spp., Salmonella enterica, Listeria and Staph aureus, Stec 1 and Stec 2 E.coli. For yeast and mold, the fungal kit can test for Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus terreus.

Their QuantX is the world’s first and only multiplex quantification microarray product that can quantify the microbial contamination load for key organisms such as total aerobic bacteria, total yeast & mold, bile tolerant gram negative, total coliform and total Enterobacteriaceae over a dynamic range from 100 CFU/mL up to 1,000,000 CFU/mL.

Not all of the PathogenDx technology is designed for just microbial testing of cannabis or food products. Their EnviroX technology is designed to help growers, processors or producers across any industry identify areas of microbial contamination, being used as a tool for quality assurance and hazard analysis. They conducted industry-wide surveys of the pathogens that are creating problems for cultivators and came up with a list of more than 50 bacterial and fungal pathogens that the EnviroX assay can test for to help growers identify contamination hotspots in their facilities.

Using the EnviroX assay, growers can swab surfaces like vents, fans, racks, workbenches and other potential areas of contamination where plants come in contact. This helps growers identify potential areas of contamination and remediate those locations. Patel says the tool could help growers employ more efficient standard operating procedures with sanitation and sterilization, reducing the facility’s incidence of pathogens winding up on crops, as well as reduction in use of pesticides and fungicides on the product.

Deploying this technology in the cannabis industry allowed Milan Patel and the PathogenDx team to bring something new to the world of microbial testing. Their products are now in more than 90 laboratories throughout the country. The success of this technology provides another shining example of how the cannabis market produces innovative and disruptive ideas that have a major impact on the world, far beyond cannabis itself.

3 Essential Components of Microbial Safety Testing

By Heather Ebling
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Microbial contamination on cannabis products represents one of the most significant threats to cannabis consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients who are at risk of developing harmful and potentially fatal infections.

As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada mandate testing cannabis products for certain microbes. The two most popular methods for microbial safety testing in the cannabis industry are culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).

When considering patient safety, labs should choose a method that provides an accurate account of what is living on the sample and can specifically target the most harmful microbes, regardless of the matrix.

1. The Method’s Results Must Accurately Reflect the Microbial Population on the Sample

The main objective of any microbial safety test is to give the operator an indication of the microbial population present on the sample.

Figure 1: MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.

Culture-based methods measure contamination by observing how many organisms grow in a given medium. However, not all microbial organisms grow at the same rate. In some cases, certain organisms will out-compete others and as a result, the population in a post-culture environment is radically different than what was on the original sample.

One study analyzed fifteen medicinal cannabis samples using two commercially available culture-based methods. To enumerate and differentiate bacteria and fungi present before and after growth on culture-based media, all samples were further subjected to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and metagenomic analyses (MA). Figure 1 illustrates MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.

The results demonstrate substantial shifts in bacterial and fungal growth after culturing on the 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms. Thus, the final composition of microbes after culturing is markedly different from the starting sample. Most concerning is the frequent identification of bacterial species in systems designed for the exclusive quantification of yeast and mold, as quantified by elevated total aerobic count (TAC) Cq values after culture in the total yeast and mold (TYM) medium. The presence of bacterial colonies on TYM growth plates or cartridges may falsely increase the rejection rate of cannabis samples for fungal contamination. These observations call into question the specificity claims of these platforms.

The Live Dead Problem

Figure 2: The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added

One of the common objections to using qPCR for microbial safety testing is the fact that the method does not distinguish between live and dead DNA. PCR primers and probes will amplify any DNA in the sample that matches the target sequence, regardless of viability. Critics claim that this can lead to false positives because DNA from non-viable organisms can inflate results. This is often called the Live-Dead problem. However, scientists have developed multiple solutions to this problem. Most recently, Medicinal Genomics developed the Grim Reefer Free DNA Removal Kit, which eliminates free DNA contained in a sample by simply adding an enzyme and buffer and incubating for 10 minutes. The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added, which prevents the Grim Reefer Enzyme from eliminating DNA when the viable cells are lysed (see Figure 2).

2. Method Must Be Able to Detect Specific Harmful Species 

Toxic Aspergillus spp., which is responsible for at least one confirmed death of a cannabis patient, grows poorly in culture mediums and is severely underreported by current culture-based platforms. And even when Aspergillus does grow in culture, there is a certain non-pathogenic Aspergillus species that look remarkably similar to their pathogenic cousins, making it difficult to speciate using visual identification alone.

Figure 3: The team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments

Conversely, qPCR assays, such as the PathoSEEK, are designed to target DNA sequences that are unique to pathogenic Aspergillus species, and they can be run using standard qPCR instruments such as the Agilent AriaMx. The primers are so specific that a single DNA base difference in the sequence can determine whether binding occurs. This specificity reduces the frequency of false positives in pathogen detection, a frequent problem with culture-based cannabis testing methods.

Additionally, Medicinal Genomics has developed a multiplex assay that can detect the four pathogenic species of Aspergillus (A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus) in a single reaction.

3. The Method Must Work on Multiple Matrices 

Figure 4: The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control.

Marijuana infused products (MIPs) are a very diverse class of matrices that behave very differently than cannabis flowers. Gummy bears, chocolates, oils and tinctures all present different challenges to culture-based techniques as the sugars and carbohydrates can radically alter the carbon sources available for growth. To assess the impact of MIPs on colony-forming units per gram of sample (CFU/g) enumeration, The Medicinal Genomics team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments: tryptic soy broth (TSB), hemp oil and hard candy. The team then homogenized the samples, pipetted amounts from each onto 3M™ Petrifilm E. coli / Coliform Count (EC) Plates, and incubated for 96 hours. The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control. Figures 3 and 4 show the results in 24-hour intervals.

Table 1: DNA was spiked into various MIPs

This implies the MIPs are interfering with the reporter assay on the films or that the MIPs are antiseptic in nature.

Many MIPs use citric acid as a flavoring ingredient which may interfere with 3M reporter chemistry. In contrast, the qPCR signal from the Agilent AriaMx was constant, implying there is microbial contamination present on the films, but the colony formation or reporting is inhibited.

Table 3: SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes
Table 2: Different numbers of DNA copies spiked into chocolate

This is not an issue with DNA-based methods, so long as the DNA extraction method has been validated on these matrices. For example, the SenSATIVAx DNA extraction method is efficient in different matrices, DNA was spiked into various MIPs as shown in Table 1, and at different numbers of DNA copies into chocolate (Table 2). The SenSATIVAx DNA extraction kit successfully captures the varying levels of DNA, and the PathoSEEK detection assay can successfully detect that range of DNA. Table 3 demonstrates that SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes that may be present on cannabis for a variety of organisms spiked onto cannabis flower samples.