Tag Archives: contamination

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.

dry cannabis plants

Moisture Matters: Why Humidity Can Make or Break a Cannabis Cultivator’s Bottom Line

By Sean Knutsen
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dry cannabis plants

Vintners have known for centuries that every step in the winemaking process—from cultivation and harvest techniques to fermentation, aging and bottling—has immense impact on the quality and value of the final product.

And that same level of scrutiny is now being applied to cannabis production.

As someone who has worked in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space for decades, I’ve been interested in finding out how post-harvest storage and packaging affect the quality and value of cannabis flower. After digging into the issue some more, storage conditions and humidity levels have indeed come into focus as major factors, beyond just the challenges of preventing mold.

Weighty Matters

I enlisted my research team at Boveda, which has studied moisture control in all manner of manufactured and natural CPG products, to look closer at what’s happening with cannabis once it leaves the cultivation room. There’s not a lot of research on cannabis storage—we checked—and so we explored this aspect further. We were frankly surprised by what a big effect evaporation has on quality and how this is playing out on the retail level.

We suspected moisture loss could affect the bottom line too, and so we did some number-crunching.

It’s well understood that the weight of cannabis flower directly correlates with its profitability—the heavier the yield, the higher the market value. Here’s what our analysis found: A mere 5% dip below the optimal relative humidity (RH) storage environment eliminates six pounds per every 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower. At $5 per gram wholesale, that works out to upwards of $13,500 in lost revenue—and that’s with just a 5% drop in RH below the target range of 55-65% established by ASTM International, an independent industry standards organization.

We also purchased flower at retailers in multiple state markets and commissioned a lab to test the samples, which revealed that most strains sold today are well below the optimal RH range (55-65%). Regardless of fluctuating wholesale prices, when you do the math it’s clear that tens of thousands of dollars in revenue are simply evaporating into thin air.

Why So Dry?

Historically, cultivators, processors and packagers have emphasized keeping flower below a particular humidity “ceiling” for a reason: Flower that’s too moist is prone to hazardous mold and microbial growth, so it’s understandable that many operators err on the side of being overly dry.

The misconception that cannabis flower can be “rehydrated” is another cause of dryness damage. But this method irrevocably damages the quality of the flower through trichome damage.

trichome close up
The fine outgrowths, referred to as trichomes, house the majority of the plant’s resin

Those delicate plant structures that house the all-important cannabinoids and terpenes become brittle and fragile when stored in an overly dry environment, and are prone to breaking off from the flower; they cannot not be recovered even if the flower is later rehydrated.

When trichomes are compromised, terpenes responsible for the aroma, taste and scent of cannabis also can evaporate. Overly dried-out cannabis doesn’t just lose weight and efficacy—it loses shelf appeal, which is particularly risky in today’s market.

Today’s consumers have an appreciation for how premium flower should look, smell and taste. Rehydration cannot put terpenes back in the flower, nor can it re-attach trichomes to the flower, which is why preservation of these elements is so key.

Cannabis Humidity Control

Cured cannabis flower can remain in storage potentially for months prior to sale or consumption. By the time it reaches the end consumer, much of the cannabis sold in regulated environments in the U.S. and Canada has suffered from dry damage.

dry cannabis plants
Rows of cannabis plants drying and curing following harvest

There are various humidity controls available for cannabis cultivators: desiccants that absorb water vapor; mechanical equipment that alters RH on a larger scale; or two-way humidity-control packets designed for storage containers.

In the CPG sector, with other moisture-sensitive products such as foods and electronics, we’ve seen that employing humidity controls will preserve quality, and cannabis flower is no different.

Saltwater-based humidity control solutions with two-way vapor-phase osmosis technology automatically add or remove water vapor as needed to maintain a constant, predetermined RH level and ensures a consistent level of moisture weight inside the cannabis flower.

Here’s one more notable finding we discovered in our storage research: Third-party lab tests commissioned by Boveda showed cannabis stored with humidity control had terpene and cannabinoid levels that were 15% higher than cannabis stored without.

Cannabis stored within the optimal humidity range maximizes all the qualities that attract and retain customers. Similar to wine-making, when cannabis cultivators focus on quality control they need to look beyond the harvest.

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.

The Best Way to Remediate Moldy Cannabis is No Remediation at All

By Ingo Mueller
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Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.

The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.

It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.

Compounding Risks

Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.

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

There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.

The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.

If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.

Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.

He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.

Powdery mildew starts with white/grey spots seen on the upper leaves surface

The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.

The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.

The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.

Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.


References

i. Holmes M, Vyas JM, Steinbach W, McPartland J. 2015. Microbiological Safety Testing of Cannabis. Cannabis Safety Institute. http://cannabissafetyinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Microbiological-Safety-Testing-of-Cannabis.pdf

ii. Jill Ellsworth, June 2019, Eliminating Microbials in Marijuana, Willow Industries, https://willowindustries.com/eliminating-microbials-in-marijuana/#

iii. Ketch DeGabrielle, April 2018, Largest U.S. Cannabis Farm Shares Two Years of Mold Remediation Research, Analytical Cannabis, https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/largest-us-cannabis-farm-shares-two-years-of-mold-remediation-research-299842

 

How to Properly Store Plastic Cannabis Packaging

By Danielle Antos
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Your plastic cannabis packaging has a big responsibility. It contains and protects your product, communicates pertinent product information and delivers the first brand impression to your consumers. In order for plastic packaging to fulfill these important roles, you must take care to store and handle it properly.

Following storage condition requirements for plastic bottles helps protect your cannabis product, your company and your customers. It doesn’t matter if your cannabis packaging is HDPE (high density polyethylene), PP (polyethylene) or PET (polyethylene terephthalate), proper storage is imperative to maintain the integrity of the product until you’re ready to fill it.

Bottle and closure storage conditions such as time, temperature and humidity can have an effect on plastic containers. The exposure and age of a sample can also affect shrinkage, impact properties and the stress crack resistance of the container. Not to mention the potential threat of contamination to your cannabis product and the poor impression of your brand in the eyes of your consumers.

You may be wondering how to obtain storage information. The best place to start is with your cannabis packaging partner. Your supplier should be ready and willing to share all vital storage information with you. The best suppliers realize that there is more to a business relationship than just the financial transaction of buying packaging. The first step in proper storage is to identify the type of material that was used to manufacture your bottles and closures.

Know Your Bottle Material Type – HDPE

If you are utilizing HDPE for your cannabis packaging, the storage time should be minimal and a strict first-in-first-out inventory should be maintained. Many end users will re-approve bottles after two or three years to ensure they are damage-free.

In addition, elevated storage temperatures allow plastic containers to further shrink and harsh conditions can actually cause severe distortion. The degree of distortion and shrinkage depends on the design and how the bottles have been stored. Higher storage temperatures also accelerate the aging process of the container. A moderate storage temperature should be provided to safeguard consistent bottle dimensions and properties. It is routinely reported that HDPE bottles can withstand temperatures of 110°F/33°C for brief periods.

Although humidity itself will not degrade the plastic container, a humid environment can have a direct impact on the secondary packaging, such as the cardboard cartons used for shipping. If you use stretch wrap and/or control warehouse conditions, secondary packaging problems can be alleviated.

HDPE bottles and closures should be kept as clean as possible – it is best to leave them in the original sealed cartons. The storage area should be kept clean, dry and dust, odor, insect, and rodent-free. Following this rule will help to build consumer trust in your brand. No one wants to purchase cannabis products in dirty, dusty contaminated packages.

Using PET Bottles?

PET bottles should also be used in a first-in-first-out system to limit the time in storage. Long-term storage should be accomplished using a sealed polyethylene plastic bag or lined drums, totes, bins, Gaylord containers, supersacks or seabulks. The plastic liner will help prevent dust and dirt from entering the bottles.

Elevated storage temperatures (above 100°F/38°C) allow empty PET bottles to shrink, mainly due to relaxation of the oriented and partially oriented regions of the bottle. Extreme temperature conditions (above 131°F/55°C) can cause severe distortion of the amorphous areas of the bottle, including the finish and neck. Moderate storage temperature should be maintained to ensure consistent bottle dimensions and properties.

To help protect PET bottles from contamination, the storage area should be kept clean, dry and dust, odor, insect, and rodent-free. Additionally, the storage area should be approved for food storage. PET bottles should not be stored in direct sunlight, and aromatic materials such as spices, solvents, ink, cleaning supplies and disinfectants should not be stored in the same area.

When empty PET bottles are shipped to or through areas where the outdoor temperature may exceed 90°/32°C, it is recommended that a temperature-controlled container or trailer capable of maintaining a temperature of 80°F/27°C or lower be used.

Polypropylene (PP) Closures

Closures are also an important part of your cannabis packaging. The storage time of unlined closures should be minimized. As with bottles, a strict first-in-first-out inventory should be maintained.

Elevated storage temperatures allow unlined PP closures to further shrink. Harsh conditions can actually cause severe distortion. The degree of distortion and shrinkage depends on the closure design and storage conditions. High storage temperatures accelerate the aging process of the closure; moderate storage temperatures should be provided to ensure consistent closure dimensions and properties. Like HDPE bottles, this type of closure can withstand temperatures of 110°F/43°C for brief periods.

When stored in humid conditions, pay attention to the integrity of the cardboard cartons the closures are stored in. The use of stretch wrap and/or controlling warehouse conditions will help alleviate damage to the cardboard. Just like their bottle counterparts, PP unlined closures should be kept as clean as possible and it is best to store in original sealed cartons.

Proper Storage Supports Your Bottom Line

Storing plastic bottles improperly can reduce the integrity of the plastic, therefore making it unsuitable to contain your cannabis product. Poor storage can also be detrimental to filling lines and cause production problems, which can result in reduced efficiencies and added costs.

Product recalls can also be a by-product of poor storage due to increased chances of product contamination. If plastic bottles and closures are not properly stored before using, distortion and shrinkage can damage the bottle labels used to identify your product. Shrinkage of your plastic closures result in a poor sealing surface which is detrimental to the freshness of your cannabis product. All of these side-effects can be very damaging to your brand image, from which it’s hard to recover. Consumers will lose confidence in your brand – leading to reduced profits for your bottom line.

Whether your cannabis business is in the early start-up stages or established with loyal customers, properly storing your plastic packaging will help protect your brand, decrease the risk of product recalls and increase your profitability.

Denver Plans Crackdown on Contaminants

By Aaron G. Biros
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Earlier this month, Colorado cannabis producer Herbal Wellness LLC recalled dozens of batches of cannabis due to positive yeast and mold tests. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued a health and safety advisory following the news of microbial contamination.

The Colorado Department of Revenue then identified batches of both medical and recreational cannabis produced by Herbal Wellness that were not even tested for microbial contaminants, which is a requirement for licensed producers in the state. Just a few days later, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) issued a bulletin announcing their plans to conduct random tests at dozens of dispensaries.

“In the coming weeks, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) will be conducting an assessment in approximately 25 retail marijuana stores to evaluate contaminants in products on store shelves,” reads the bulletin. “DDPHE has worked with epidemiological partners at Denver Public Heath to create the assessment methodology. Participating stores will be randomly identified for inclusion in the assessment.”

“Current METRC inventory lists for each store will be used to randomly identify samples of flower, trim/shake, and pre-rolls. Each sample will be tested for pesticides and total yeast and mold by a state- and ISO-certified marijuana testing facility. Results of their respective testing will be shared with each facility and will also be shared broadly within a write-up of results.”

Clearing Up the Haze Surrounding Cannabis Product Liability Risks

By Susan Preston, T.J. Frost
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When a thriving cultivator purchased additional cannabis from a wholesale grower to meet the 5,000 pounds he was short, he was left holding the bag. A customer complained of a strong sulfur taste, and soon it was discovered that the wholesaler had applied the wrong pesticide concentration, rendering the cannabis unusable. The cultivator had to pull contaminated cannabis product from the shelves, a move that cost the company $3.5 million.

This story is not unique. When running short on product, cannabis businesses will often turn to other suppliers and partners to help them fulfill their orders. Unfortunately, improper vetting and a lack of understanding and compliance with state regulations and other requirements may lead to a loss of product integrity and costly product liabilities. Product liability can include more than just the cannabis itself, such as the equipment – vape cartridges, batteries, and lighters. This can quickly inflate the risk and, of course, the cost of a product liability claim. It is possible to transfer some of these cannabis risks to product liability insurance.

Top Three Product Liability Exposures Facing Cannabis Cultivators and Distributors

Three key areas of product liability exposure face cannabis business owners. It’s important to understand how each will affect your business.

  1. Product contamination.When cannabis is sold in an edible form, business owners could face claims of food poisoning or illness. If the product is smoked, there are exposures to contamination, product mislabeling or misrepresentation, and possible health hazard claims related to long-term exposure to potential contaminants.
  2. First party claims. Claims made in the event of an accident, injury or loss, whether caused by the business owner or someone else, will create another set of exposures, including manufacturing defects, failure to warn users on potential product usage hazards, improper labeling, or any product-related defect such as mold or odor.
  3. Third party claims. Cannabis business owners could be liable for claims stemming from the use of their cannabis product that result in a DUI, property damage, loss of wages, medical expenses and bodily injury.

It is possible to transfer some of these cannabis risks to product liability insurance. While there are multiple lines of product liability insurance, you’ll want to make sure you choose one designed specifically for the cannabis industry. These policies may provide coverage for the following exposures:

  • Product contamination
  • Bodily injury damages
  • Fines and penalties for non-compliance with state regulation
  • Bodily or property injury caused to others by product misuse, or by a third party
  • Manufacturing or product-related defects

While product liability insurance covers a number of cannabis risks, it doesn’t cover them all. Cannabis operations require a variety of coverage – property, crime, general liability, worker’s compensationand crop insurance. Insurance carriers will differ in definitions, policy exclusions and coverage language for each policy.

Because designated cannabis product liability and business operations coverage is fairly new and the marketplace features a wide range of options, make sure to work with a broker who understands the fine print of your policies, and your unique needs. The right broker can provide advice and loss control to help you reduce product liability exposures, make product and risk management recommendations that best mitigate your exposures to prevent loss, and ensure the proper coverage to address potential claims.