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Milan Patel, PathogenDx
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The Need for More Stringent Testing in Cannabis

By Milan Patel
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Milan Patel, PathogenDx

As the demand for legal cannabis continues to rise and more states come online, it is imperative to enact more rigorous and comprehensive testing solutions to protect the health of consumers. People use cannabis products for wellness and to find relief; they should not be susceptible to consuming pathogens and falling ill. Especially for immunocompromised consumers, the consequences of consuming contaminated cannabis or hemp are dire. Of course, there should be federal standards for pathogen testing requirements like we have for the food industry. But right now, as cannabis is not yet federally legal, testing regulations vary between states and in many states, testing requirements are too loose and enforcement is minimal. It is up to state legislators, regulators and cannabis operators to protect the health of consumers through implementing more stringent testing.

From the outset, the environmental elements needed to grow cannabis – heat, light, humidity, soil – make cannabis ripe for pathogens to proliferate. Even when growers follow strict sanitation procedures through the supply chain from seed to sale, contaminations can still occur. Cannabis companies need to be hypervigilant and proactive about testing, not just reactive. The lack of regulations in some states is alarming, and as the cannabis industry is highly competitive and so many companies have emerged in a short time, there are unfortunately unscrupulous actors that have skated by in a loose regulatory landscape, just in the game to make a quick buck, even at the expense of consumer health. And there are notable instances where states do not have enforcement in place to deter harmful manufacturing practices. For instance, there are some states that don’t mandate moisture control and there have been incidents of companies watering down flower so it has more weight and thus can be sold at a higher cost – all the while that added moisture leads to mold, harming the consumer. This vicious circle driven by selfish human behavior needs to be broken by stricter regulations and enforcement.

While in the short term, looser testing regulations may save companies some money, in the long run these regulatory environments carry significant economic repercussions and damage the industry at large, most importantly injury or death to customers and patients. Recalls can tarnish a company’s brand and reputation and cause sales and stock prices to tank, and since cannabis legalization is such a hotly contested issue, the media gloms onto these recalls, which opponents to legalization then leverage to justify their stance. In order to win the hearts and minds of opponents and bring about federal legalization sooner, we need safer products so cannabis won’t be cast in such a dangerous, risky light.

Certainly, there’s a bit of irony at play here – the lack of federal regulations heightens the risk of contaminated cannabis reaching consumers, and on the flip side recalls are used by opponents to justify stigmatizing the plant and keeping it illegal. Nevertheless, someday in the not-too-distant future, cannabis will be legalized at the federal level. And when that day happens, federal agents will aggressively test and regulate cannabis; they’ll swab every area in facilities and demand thorough records of testing up and down the supply chain; current good manufacturing practices (cGMP) will be mandated. No longer will violations result just in a slap on the wrist – businesses will be shut down. To avoid a massive shock to the system, it makes sense for cannabis companies to pivot and adopt rigorous and wide-sweeping testing procedures today. Wait for federal legalization, and you’ll sink.

Frankly, the current landscape of cannabis regulation is scary and the consequences are largely yet to be seen. Just a few months ago, a Michigan state judge reversed part of a recall issued by the state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) on cannabis that exceeded legal limits of yeast, mold and aspergillus, bringing contaminated cannabis back to shelves without even slapping a warning label on the packaging to inform consumers of the potential contamination. This is a classic case of the power of the dollar prevailing over consumer safety and health. Even in well-established markets, the lack of regulations is jarring. For example, before this year in Colorado, testing for aspergillus wasn’t even required. (Aspergillus inhalation, which can cause Aspergillosis, can be deadly, especially for people who are immunocompromised). Many states still allow trace amounts of aspergillus and other pathogens to be present in cannabis samples. While traces may seem inconsequential in the short term, what will happen to frequent consumers who have been pinging their lungs with traces of pathogens for 30 years? Consistently inhaling trace amounts of pathogens can lead to lung issues and pulmonary disease down the road. Look what happened to people with breathing and lung issues during the last two years with COVID. What’s going to happen to these people when the next pandemic hits?

We need state regulators and MSOs to step up and implement more aggressive testing procedures. These regulators and companies can create a sea of change in the industry to better protect the health and well-being of consumers. Just complying with loose regulations isn’t good enough. We need to bring shortcomings around testing into the limelight and demand better and more efficient regulatory frameworks. And we should adopt the same standards for medical and adult use markets. Right now, several states follow cGMP for medical but not adult use – that’s ridiculous. Potentially harming consumers goes against what activists seeking legalization have been fighting for. Cannabis, untainted, provides therapeutic and clinical value not just to medical patients but to all consumers; cannabis companies should promote consumer health through their products, not jeopardize it.

For best practices, companies should conduct tests at every step in the supply chain, not just test end products. And testing solutions should be comprehensive. Most of the common tests used today are based on petri dishes, an archaic and inefficient technology dating back over a century, which require a separate dish to test for each pathogen of interest. If you’re waiting three to five days to see testing results against fifteen pathogens and a pathogen happens to be present, by the time you see results, the pathogen could have spread and destroyed half of your crops. So, not only do petri dishes overburden state-run labs, but due to their inherent inefficiencies, relying on these tests can significantly eat into cannabis companies’ revenues. At PathogenDx, we’ve created multiplexing solutions that can identify and detect up to 50 pathogens in a single test and yield accurate results in six hours. To save cannabis companies money in the long run and to make sure pathogens don’t slip through the cracks, more multiplexing tests like the ones we’ve created should be implemented in state labs.

Right now, while the regulatory landscape is falling short in terms of protecting consumer health, better solutions already exist. I urge state regulators and cannabis companies to take testing very seriously, be proactive and invest in creating better testing infrastructure today. Together, we can protect the health of consumers and create a stronger, more trustworthy and prosperous cannabis industry.

Medicinal Genomics Salmonella and STEC E. coli Multiplex Assay Certified by AOAC

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Medicinal Genomics announced today that they have received AOAC International certification for their PathoSEEK® Salmonella and STEC E. coli multiplex assay. In combination with their SenSATIVAx® extraction kits, labs can simultaneously detect Salmonella spp. and STEC E. coli with a single qPCR reaction for flower, concentrates and infused chocolates using the Agilent AriaMx and the BioRad CFx-96 instruments.

The certification came after the multiplex assay was validated according to the AOAC Performance Tested Method Program. According to the press release, the PathoSEEK platform now has more cannabis matrices accredited for Aspergillus, Salmonella, and STEC E. coli than any other product out on the market, according to their press release.

The PathoSEEK microbiological testing platform uses a qPCR assay and internal plant DNA controls for reactions. The two-step protocol verifies performance while detecting microbes, which allegedly helps minimize false negative results from human error or failing conditions.

“AOAC’s validation of our Salmonella/STEC E. coli assay across the various cannabis matrices is further proof of our platform’s robustness and versatility,” says Dr. Sherman Hom, director of regulatory affairs at Medicinal Genomics. “We are excited that our PathoSEEK® platform is moving in concert with the FDA’s new blueprint to improve food safety by modernizing the regulatory framework, while leveraging the use of proven molecular tools to accelerate predictive capabilities, enhance prevention, and enhance our ability to swiftly adapt to pathogen outbreaks that could impact consumer safety.”

Detecting Microbial Contamination in Cannabis

By Mike Clark
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Increasing cannabis use across the US has come with increased scrutiny of its health effects. Regulators and healthcare providers are not just concerned about the direct effects of inhaling or consuming cannabinoids, however, but also about another health risk: microbial contamination in cannabis products. Like any other crop, cannabis is susceptible to contamination by harmful pathogens at several points throughout the supply chain, from cultivation and harvesting to distribution. Many state regulators have set limits for microbial populations in cannabis products. Consequently, testing labs must adopt efficient screening protocols to help companies remain compliant and keep their customers safe.

Some of the pathogens common to cannabis flower include Aspergillus fungus species such as A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger and A. terreus. Cannabis might also harbor harmful E. coli and Salmonella species, including Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Regulations vary by state, but most have set specific thresholds for how many colony forming units (CFUs) of particular species can be present in a sellable product.

The gold standard method for detecting microbes is running cultures.

Growers and testing labs need to develop a streamlined approach to remain viable. Current methods, including running cultures on every sample, can be expensive and time-consuming, but by introducing a PCR-based screening step first, which identifies the presence of microbial DNA – and therefore the potential for contamination – laboratories can reduce the number of cultures they need to run, saving money and time.

The Risk of Aspergillus Contamination

Contamination from Aspergillus species can bring harm to cannabis growers and their customers. The state of Michigan is currently undergoing the largest cannabis recall in its history from Aspergillus contamination.

If contamination grows out of control, the pathogen can damage the cannabis plant itself and lead to financial losses. Aspergillus can also cause serious illness in consumers, especially those that are immunocompromised. If an immunocompromised person inhales Aspergillus, they can develop aspergillosis, a lung condition with a poor prognosis.

A Two-Step Screening Process

The gold standard method for detecting microbes is running cultures. This technique takes weeks to deliver results and can yield inaccurate CFU counts, making it difficult for growers to satisfy regulators and create a safe product in a timely manner. The use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can greatly shorten the time to results and increase sensitivity by determining whether the sample has target DNA.

Using PCR can be expensive, particularly to screen for multiple species at the same time, but a qPCR-based Aspergillus detection assay could lead to significant cost savings. Since the average presumptive positive rate for Aspergillus contamination is low (between 5-10%), this assay can be used to negatively screen large volumes of cannabis samples. It serves as an optional tool to further speciate only those samples that screened positive to comply with state regulations.

Conclusion

Overall, screening protocols have become a necessary part of cannabis production, and to reduce costs, testing labs must optimize methods to become as efficient as possible. With tools such as PCR technology and a method that allows for initial mass screening followed by speciation only when necessary, laboratories can release more samples faster with fewer unnecessary analyses and more success for cannabis producers in the marketplace.

Leaders in Cannabis Testing – Part 1: A Q&A with Milan Patel, CEO and Co-Founder of PathogenDx

By Aaron Green
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In this “Leaders in Cannabis Testing” series of articles, Green interviews cannabis testing laboratories and technology providers that are bringing unique perspectives to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices and technologies to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory constraints and B2B demand.

PathogenDx is an Arizona-based provider of microbial testing technologies. Since their inception in 2014, they have broadened their reach to 26 states in the US. In addition to cannabis product testing, PathogenDx also provides technologies for food safety testing, environmental testing and recently started offering human diagnostics testing to support COVID-19 response efforts.

We interviewed Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. Milan founded PathogenDx as a spin-off from one of his investments in a clinical diagnostics company testing for genetic markers in transplant organs. Prior to PathogenDx, Milan worked in finance and marketing at Intel and later served as CFO at Acentia (now Maximus Federal).

Aaron Green: What’s the history of PathogenDx?

Milan Patel: PathogenDx was effectively a spin-off of a clinical diagnostics company that my partner Dr. Mike Hogan, the inventor of the technology, had founded when he was a professor at the University of Arizona, but previously at Baylor Medical College back in 2002. I had invested in the company back then and I had realized that his technology had a broad and wide sweeping impact for testing – not just for pathogens in cannabis specifically, but also for pathogens in food, agriculture, water and even human diagnostics. In the last 14 months, this became very personal for every single person on the planet having been impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the viral pathogen causing Covid-19. The genesis of the company was just this, that human health, food and agricultural supply, and the environment has and will continue to be targeted by bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens impacting the safety and health of each human on the planet.

We founded PathogenDx and we pivoted the company from its original human organ transplant genetics market scope into the bigger markets; we felt the original focus was too niche for a technology with this much potential. We licensed the technology, and we repurposed it into primarily cannabis. We felt that achieving commercial success and use in the hands of cannabis testing labs at the state level where cannabis was first regulated was the most logical next step. Ultimately, our goal was and is to move into markets that are approved at the federal regulatory side of the spectrum, and that is where we are now.

Green: What year was that?

Milan Patel, CEO and Co-Founder of PathogenDx
Photo credit: Michael Chansley

Patel: 2014.

Green: So, PathogenDx started in cannabis testing?

Patel: Yes, we started in cannabis testing. We now have over 100 labs that are using the technology. There is a specific need in cannabis when you’re looking at contamination or infection.

In the case of contamination on cannabis, you must look for bacterial and fungal organisms that make it unsafe, such as E. coli, or Salmonella or Aspergillus pathogens. We’re familiar with recent issues like the romaine lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks at Chipotle. In the case of fungal organisms such as Aspergillus, if you smoke or consume contaminated cannabis, it could have a huge impact on your health. Cannabis regulators realized that to ensure public health and safety there was more than just one pathogen – there were half a dozen of these bugs, at a minimum, that could be harmful to you.

The beauty of our technology, using a Microarray is that we can do what is called a multiplex test, which means you’re able to test for all bacterial and fungal pathogens in a single test, as opposed to the old “Adam Smith” model, which tests each pathogen on a one-by-one basis. The traditional approach is costly, time consuming and cumbersome. Cannabis is such a high value crop and producers need to get the answer quickly. Our tests can give a result in six hours on the same day, as opposed to the two or three days that it takes for these other approved methods on the market.

Green: What is your business model? Is there equipment in addition to consumables?

Patel: Our business model is the classic razor blade model. What that means is we sell equipment as well as the consumables – the testing kits themselves.

The PathogenDx technology uses standard, off-the-shelf lab equipment that you can find anywhere. We didn’t want to make the equipment proprietary so that a lab has to buy a specific OEM branded product. They can use almost any equipment that’s available commercially. We wanted to make sure that labs are only paying a fraction of the cost to get our equipment, as opposed to using other vendors. Secondly, the platform is open-ended, meaning it’s highly flexible to work with the volumes that different cannabis labs see daily, from high to low.

One equipment set can process many different types of testing kits. There are kits for regulated testing required by states, as well as required environmental contamination.

Green: Do you provide any in-house or reference lab testing?

Patel: We do. We have a CLIA lab for clinical testing. We did this about a year ago when we started doing COVID testing.

We don’t do any kind of in-house reference testing for cannabis, though we do use specific reference materials or standards from Emerald Scientific, for example, or from NCI. Our platform is all externally third-party reference lab tested whether it’s validated by our external cannabis lab customers or an independent lab. We want our customers to make sure that the actual test works in their own hands, in their own facility by their own people, as opposed to just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “hey, we’ve done it ourselves, believe us.” That’s the difference.

Green: Can you explain the difference between qPCR and endpoint PCR?

Patel: The difference between PathogenDx’s Microarray is it uses endpoint PCR versus qPCR (quantitative real time PCR). Effectively, our test doesn’t need to be enriched. Endpoint PCR delivers a higher level of accuracy, because when it goes to amplify that target DNA, whether it’s E. coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus pieces, it uses all the primer reagent to its endpoint. So, it amplifies every single piece of an E. Coli (for example) in that sample until the primer is fully consumed. In the case of qPCR, it basically reaches a threshold and then the reaction stops. That’s the difference which results in a much greater level of accuracy. This provides almost 10 times greater sensitivity to identify the pathogen in that sample.

The second thing is that we have separated out how the amplified sample hybridizes to the probe. In the case of our assay, we have a microarray with a well in it and we printed the actual probe that has the sequence of E. coli in there, now driving 100% specificity. Whereas in the qPCR, the reaction is not only amplifying, but it’s also basically working with the probe. So, in that way, we have a higher level of efficiency in terms of specificity. You get a definite answer exactly in terms of the organism you’re looking for.

In terms of an analogy, let’s take a zip code for example which has the extra four digits at the end of it.  In the case of endpoint PCR, we have nine digits. We have our primer probes which represent the standard five digits of a zip code, and the physical location of the probe itself in the well which serves as the extra four digits of that zip code. The analyte must match both primary and secondary parts of the nine-digit zip code for it to lock in, like a key and a lock. And that’s the way our technology works in a nutshell.

Endpoint PCR is completely different. It drives higher levels of accuracy and specificity while reducing the turnaround time compared to qPCR – down to six hours from sample to result. In qPCR, you must enrich the sample for 24 to 48 hours, depending on bacteria or fungus, and then amplification and PCR analysis can be done in one to three hours. The accuracies and the turnaround times are the major differences between the endpoint PCR and qPCR.

Green: If I understand correctly, it’s a printed microarray in the well plate?

Patel: That’s correct. It’s a 96-well plate, and in each well, you’ve now printed all the probes for all targets in a single well. So, you’re not running more than one well per target, or per organism like you are for qPCR. You’re running just one well for all organisms. With our well plates, you’re consuming fewer wells and our patented foil-cover, you only use the wells you need. The unused wells in the well plate can be used in future tests, saving on costs and labor.

Green: Do you have any other differentiating IP?

The PathogenDx Microarray

Patel: The multiplex is the core IP. The way we process the raw sample, whether it’s flower or non-flower, without the need for enrichment is another part of the core IP. We do triplicate probes in each well for E. Coli, triplicate probes for Salmonella, etc., so there are three probes per targeted organism in each of the wells. We’re triple checking that you’re definitively identifying that bug at the end of the day. This is the cornerstone of our technology.

We were just approved by the State of New York, and the New York Department of Health has 13 different organisms for testing on cannabis. Think about it: one of the most rigorous testing requirements at a state level – maybe even at a federal level – and we just got approved for that. If you had to do 13 organisms separately, whether it’s plate culture or qPCR, it would become super expensive and very difficult. It would break the very backs of every testing lab to do that. That’s where the multiplexing becomes tremendously valuable because what you’re doing is leveraging the ability to do everything as a single test and single reaction.

Green: You mentioned New York. What other geographies are you active in?

Patel: We’re active in 26 different states including the major cannabis players: Florida, Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington – and we’re also in Canada. We’re currently working to enter other markets, but it all comes down to navigating the regulatory process and getting approval.

We’re not active currently in other international markets yet. We’re currently going through the AOAC approval process for our technology and I’m happy to say that we’re close to getting that in the next couple of months. Beyond that, I think we’ll scale more internationally.

I am delighted to say that we also got FDA EUA federal level authorization of our technology which drives significant credibility and confidence for the use of the technology. About a year ago, we made a conscious choice to make this technology federally acceptable by going into the COVID testing market. We got the FDA EUA back on April 20, ironically. That vote of confidence by the FDA means that our technology is capable of human testing. That has helped to create some runway in terms of getting federalized with both the FDA and the USDA, and certification by AOAC for our different tests.

Green: Was that COVID-19 EUA for clinical diagnostics or surveillance?

Patel: It was for clinical diagnostics, so it’s an actual human diagnostic test.

Green: Last couple of questions here. Once you find something as a cannabis operator, whether its bacteria or fungus, what can you do?

Patel: There are many services that are tied into our ecosystem. For example, we work with Willow Industries, who does remediation.

There’s been a lot of criticism around DNA based technology. It doesn’t matter if it’s qPCR or endpoint PCR. They say, “well, you’re also including dead organisms, dead DNA.” We do have a component of separating live versus dead DNA with a biomechanical process, using an enzyme that we’ve created, and it’s available commercially. Labs can test for whether a pathogen is living or dead and, in many cases, when they find it, they can partner with remediation companies to help address the issue at the grower level.

Another product we offer is an EnviroX test, which is an environmental test of air and surfaces. These have 50 pathogens in a single well. Think about this: these are all the bad actors that typically grow where soil is – the human pathogens, plant pathogens, powdery mildew, Botrytis, Fusarium – these are very problematic for the thousands of growers out there. The idea is to help them with screening technology before samples are pulled off the canopy and go to a regulated lab. We can help the growers isolate where that contamination is in that facility, then the remediation companies can come in, and help them save their crop and avoid economic losses.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Patel: I would prefer that the cannabis industry not go through the same mistakes other industries have gone through. Cannabis started as a cottage industry. It’s obviously doubled every year, and as it gets scaled, the big corporations come in. Sophistication, standards, maturity all help in legitimacy of a business and image of an industry. At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from other industries to really leapfrog and not have to go through the same mistakes. That’s one of the things that’s important to me. I’m very passionate about it.

One thing that I’ll leave you with is this: we’re dealing with more bugs in cannabis than the food industry. The food industry is only dealing with two to four bugs and look at the number of recalls they are navigating – and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cannabis is still a fraction of that and we’re dealing with more bugs. We want to look ahead and avoid these recalls. How do you avoid some of the challenges around antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance? We don’t want to be going down that road if we can avoid it and that’s sort of a personal mission for myself and the company.

Cannabis itself is so powerful, both medicinally as well as recreationally, and it can be beneficial for both consumers and industry image if we do the right things, and avoid future disasters, like the vaping crisis we went through 18 months ago because of bad GMPs. We must learn from those industries. We’re trying to make it better for the right reasons and that’s what’s important to me.

Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Milan.

Patel: Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and your time, Aaron.

AOAC Approves New Microbial Testing Validations

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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In a press release sent out this month, bioMérieux announced they have received the very first approvals in cannabis and hemp for AOAC Research Institute Performance Testing Methods (PTM). AOAC approved method validation for the detection of Salmonella and STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) in cannabis flower utilizing bioMérieux GENE- UP® SLM2 (PTM 121802) and EHEC (PTM 121806) assays.

According to the press release, these validations are the first of their kind in the cannabis and hemp industries. The AOAC-validated testing methods are approved for 1-gram and 10-gram samples.

Dr. Stan Bailey, senior director of scientific affairs at bioMérieux, says these approvals demonstrate the company’s commitment to innovative and validated science in the cannabis and hemp industries. “We are especially proud that the GENE-UP SLM2 and EHEC are the first two AOAC approvals in the United States for cannabis and hemp,” says Dr. Bailey. “This is increasingly important with now over half the population of the US living in states that have approved cannabis for recreational use and most states approving cannabis for medical use.”

The AOAC PTM designations are recognized by the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and global regulatory agencies. The validation guidance builds on AOAC’s Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP).

bioMérieux is a French in vitro diagnostics company that serves the global testing market. They provide diagnostic solutions such as systems, reagents, software and services.

Following Up: Questions From The Infused Products Virtual Conference Answered

By Ellice Ogle
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If you missed the Cannabis Industry Journal’s 3rd Annual Infused Products Virtual Conference last week, one of the speakers, Ellice Ogle, founder and CEO of Tandem Food presented on Food Safety Culture in the Cannabis Industry. An overview of the information in the presentation can be found here, Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace. Below are answers to some of the post-presentation questions we received, but were unable to answer during the Q&A session. To get your additional questions answered or for a complimentary consultation for your company, specially provided to readers of Cannabis Industry Journal, contact Ellice Ogle at Ellice@tndmfood.com.

Question: What are some recommended digital programs for internal auditing?

Ellice Ogle, founder and CEO of Tandem Food

Ellice Ogle: Before looking at the tools for conducting an internal audit, understand the goal of the internal audit. One key aspect of internal auditing is knowing which standard(s) to audit against. For example, regulatory audits for cGMP certification are different than optional third-party certifications such as any GFSI scheme (SQF, BRC, PrimusGFS, etc). While the standards ultimately have the same goal of food safety with varying focuses, it is important to have an experienced food safety specialist conduct the audit as realistically as possible. The experienced specialist will then be able to recommend an appropriate tool for internal auditing moving forward, whether it is software such as FoodLogiQ, SafetyChain, Safefood 360°, among many others, or simply providing a template of the audit checklist. Overall, the risk of foodborne illnesses can be minimal, but it takes persistence and commitment to achieve a successful food safety culture. Metrics can assist in assessing the commitment to food safety and, as a result of these efforts, you will minimize the risk of compromising the health and safety of your guests, employees, foods and business. If you want a specific example, I’d like to direct you to a case study in partnership with Heylo LLC in Washington state, posted on the Tandem Food website.

Q: What are examples of ways to share environmental monitoring results to enhance a good edible safety culture?

Ellice: In the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods: Guidance for Industry Draft Guidance (2017), the FDA states that “a well-designed environmental monitoring program promotes knowledge and awareness of the environmental conditions that could result in product contamination and is a more effective program than product testing alone.” In other words, environmental monitoring programs and results can identify environmental conditions within a facility that could cause potential contamination. Publishing these findings, for example in the form of a case study or sharing the details of the practice, can enhance the food safety culture in the specific niche industry. For example, to borrow from the meat industry, Tyson Foods, Inc developed and shared environmental monitoring programs that are used by their peers, promoting a unified food safety culture, rather than competitive, guarded secrecy.

Q: Are the food safety requirements the same for retail and manufacturing?

Ellice: The food safety requirements are not exactly the same for retailers and manufacturers. The difference is inherent that retailers are working with finished product while manufacturers are working with raw ingredients and the manufacturing process to develop the finished product. Let’s take a closer look at cannabis regulation in Washington state. Chapter 314-55-104(12) states “Processors creating marijuana extracts must develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and a training plan prior to producing extracts for the marketplace.” Compare this to the requirements for retailers, 314-55-105(11) which states “A marijuana producer, processor or retailer licensed by the WSLCB must conduct the production, processing, storage, and sale of marijuana-infused products using sanitary practices.” While SOPs and GMPs are not explicitly mentioned for retailers as they are for manufacturers, sanitary practices could be documented as Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Proper storage practices can also be an overlapping food safety concern with respect to temperature control or pest management systems. Overall, food safety should remain a top priority in maintaining the integrity of the products throughout the supply chain.

Q: To your knowledge, has there been a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product?

Ellice: One possible cannabis-related death investigated in 2017 uncovered deadly pathogens in medical cannabis. However, to  my knowledge, I have not seen a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product. There might be any number of reasons that this is so, for example, possibly because a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product might not have had a large impact to make headlines. Although, with the cannabis industry already misunderstood and a stigma so prevalent to even promote fake news, it is better to prevent an outbreak from ever occurring. One thing to note is that ultimately cannabis is just another ingredient in existing products, of course with special properties. So, the common food safety offenders are present: listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, among others. On the plant, cannabis food product manufacturers must minimize the risk of mycotoxins produced by molds, pest contamination, and pesticide contamination. For products that contain cannabis infusions or extractions as an ingredient, there is the possibility of the growth of Botulism toxin. Many of these pathogens can be minimized by appropriate heat treatment or maintenance of refrigeration, testing, and by practicing preventive measures. Arguably, the largest potential for pathogenic contamination is due to improper employee handling. To refer to what we discussed earlier, employee training is key, as well as proper enforcement. Having a strong food safety culture ensures that people have the knowledge of food safety risks and the knowledge of preventing outbreaks.

Q: Do any of the panelists know of any efforts to develop a food safety-oriented standard for the cannabis industry?GMP

Ellice: One example of a specific effort to develop a food safety-oriented standard for the cannabis industry includes TraceTrust A True Dose™ & hGMP™ certification. However, there are efforts for other standards that have food safety included. Take organic certification, there are several companies creating and auditing against their own standard such as Clean Green Certified, Oregon Sungrown Farm Certification, or Washington Sungrowers Industry Association. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is also preparing a cannabis program comparable to the USA National Organic Program.

Q: Can you assist with cGMP certification?

Ellice: Yes, Tandem Food LLC is positioned to consult on cGMP certification for manufacturing facilities in the cannabis industry. First, a gap assessment can be conducted to obtain useful actionable data for you, rather than be an intimidating experience. Working from the identified baseline, Tandem Food will work with you to create and implement all related documentation and programs, providing training as necessary. Overall, with the right commitment, cGMP certification can take 6-12 months.

The Power of Prevention: Pathogen Monitoring in Cannabis Cultivation and Processing Facilities

By Nathan Libbey
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As the cannabis market matures and the value chain becomes modernized, it’s important to address product safety in a comprehensive way. In other areas of manufacturing, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) has been the standard for reducing hazards both for employees and for the products themselves. A Critical Control Point (CCP) is any spot from conception to consumption where a loss of control can potentially result in risk (Unnevehr, 1996). In the food realm, HACCP has been used to drive quality enhancements since the 1980s (Cichy, 1982).

In a nutshell, HACCP seeks to help identify where a problem may enter a product or environment and how that problem may be addressed before it escalates. In cannabis, these hazards include many of the same problems that food products have: specifically molds, yeasts, and pathogenic bacteria (Listeria, E. coli, etc.). While the current industry standard is to test products at the end stage for these contaminants, this late-stage pass/fail regimen leads to huge lots of destroyed product and a risk for consumer distrust (Yamashiro, 2019). HACCP, therefore, should be applied at every stage of the production process.

Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM) is a tool that can be used to identify CCPs in a cannabis cultivation or processing facility. The main goal of a PEM program is to find a contaminant before it reaches a surface that touches the product or the product itself. PEM is conducted using a pre-moistened swab or a sponge to collect a sample from the cannabis environment. The swab can then be sent to a lab for microbial testing. Keys to an effective PEM are:

1. Start with a broad stroke – When the FDA comes to a facility suspected of producing pathogen-laced food products, they conduct what is known as a Swab-a-thon. A Swab-a-thon is a top to bottom collection of samples, usually totaling 100 or more. Similarly, preemptively swabbing should be the first step in any PEM—swab everything to see what exists as a baseline.

2. Map your scene – identify on a map of your facility the following:

  • Cannabis contact surfaces (CCS) (belts, clippers, tables, etc)
  • Non-cannabis contact surfaces (Non-CCS) (floors, lighting, drains, etc)
  • Flow of air and people (where do air and people enter and where do they go?

Identifying the above zones will help deepen your understanding of where contaminants may come into contact with cannabis and how they may migrate from a Non-CCS to a CCS. 

3. Plan and execute:

  • Based on the results of mapping, and Swab-a-thon, identify where and when you will be collecting samples on a consistent and repeatable basis. Emphasis should be placed on areas that are deemed a risk based on 1) and 2). Samples should be collected at random in all zones to ensure comprehensive screening.

4. Remediate and modify:

  • If you get a positive result during PEM, don’t panic—pathogens are ubiquitous.
  • Remediate any trouble spots with deep cleaning, remediation devices or other protocols.
  • Re-test areas that were positive for pathogens to ensure remediation is successful.
  • Revisit and modify the plan at least once a year and each time a new piece of equipment is added or production flow is otherwise changed.

The steps above are a good starting point for a grower or processor to begin a PEM. Remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to safety; each facility has its own unique set of hazards and control points.

Comprehensive guides for PEM can be found at the links below, many of the concepts can be applied to cannabis production.


https://affifoodsafety.org/lcp/advanced-search/

http://www.centerforproducesafety.org/amass/documents/document/263/Listeria%20Guidance%20UFPA%202013.pdf

Cichy, R. (1982). HACCP as a quality assurance tool in a commissary food-service system. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 1(2), 103-106.

Unnevehr, L., & Jensen, H. (1996). HACCP as a Regulatory Innovation to Improve Food Safety in the Meat Industry. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 78(3), 764-769.

Yamashiro, C, & Baca, Y. (2019).  Prevent high-value cannabis crop loss with innovative environmental monitoring tool.

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