The journal Frontiers in Plant Science recently shared an important article from researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, highlighting the “Pathogens and Molds Affecting Production and Quality of Cannabis Sativa.”
As a chemist focused on the science of preventing and mitigating mold in greenhouse and indoor cannabis grow facilities, this piece was fascinating to me. Like many others, it details and explains prevalent mold like Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus – things I see in grows every day.
But wait, there’s more fungi
The research and resulting article also brought up another type of fungi – endophytic mold. Endophytic mold usually lives symbiotically with plants, or is at least beneficial for both plant and fungi.
But not always.
In the past, the industry has believed that damaging mold spores were found on the outside of the flower. When moved, that flower would release the spores and send them flying – often creating massive cross-contamination issues for indoor grows.
“While cannabis is an incredibly powerful plant in terms of its medicinal properties, it is unfortunately highly susceptible to many pest and pathogens,” says Hope Jones, PhD, CEO, Adivina & ECS. “And it is this susceptibility that is so challenging to many inexperienced or undisciplined grow operations.”
Now, however, we know that there’s another culprit to add to the list: the inner parts of the plant can also be a source of endophytic cross contamination and mold.
Since it grows inside of the plant, this fungus creates high spore counts that can cross contaminate from outside, into the flower.
Treating mold in a facility
Here’s the good news:
This seemingly bad news – that there’s a new fungus to worry about, and it is inside the flower – may actually help cannabis grows struggling with mold, and those who are following the proper protocols already.
Effective mitigation protocols can include things like treating HVAC systems, controlling humidity, using products like chlorine dioxide to treat irrigation lines, enforcing protective clothing and shoe covers for employees, reducing the amount of in-and-out for employees around grow rooms.
These are important upstream and environmentally-focused integrated pest management (IPM) programs that will usually keep facilities clean and relatively mold-free.
But if these programs are in place, and there’s still an issue, Endophytic fungi may be to blame.
If you are having ongoing mold issues but have ruled out cross-contamination and a facility without proper protocol, look to the mother plant.
“Small mistakes in agricultural practices are amplified with cannabis,” Dr. Jones continues. “And today’s propagation practices of traditional cloning add to this vulnerability. Cannabis is an annual plant and by keeping mothers in a perpetual state of vegetative growth for years, and taking repetitive cuttings produces clones in a highly stressed state. This stressed state diminishes genetic potential and weakens a plant’s ability to fight disease and pests.”
Testing for and addressing endophytic fungi
If these concerns are ringing a bell, remember, there is also a way to test for Endophytic mold.
Checking cuttings from suspected mother plants over a period of time is the best way to see if the Endophytic mold is present.
A section of the mother plant cutting is placed into a solution (for example, as outlined by the article, a very concentrated hypochlorite followed by 70% Ethanol) that will kill all of the microorganisms that are present on the surface of the plant tissues.
From there, an unadulterated dissection of the internal tissues can be extracted and cultured for quantification and identification of endophytic fungi.
“Tissue culture offers a form of genetic rebooting returning the plant to its natural genetic potential and thereby strengthening its natural ability to defend against environment assault,” says Dr. Jones. “It also allows the breeder to conduct pathogenic disease testing which provides the entire industry with a higher level of scientific certainty and analysis.”
If you find this mold inside of the mother plant, your facility’s mold problem could be a systemic issue, not an environmental one.
If you do find that Endophytic mold is causing issues, of course, you may have to destroy the mother plant.
This should not mean the end of a strain. Tissue culture on a cutting is an option that can eliminate the unwanted fungi and save the genetics. Using those genetics to regrow a mother will start fresh and avoid the intrinsic mold that was plaguing the strain prior.
The practice of checking mother plants for Endophytic mold is not yet commonplace in cannabis, but the hemp business is leading the way.
They’re testing to create very clean plants, so you don’t have issues during cultivation.
Major growers in the U.S. could save millions in lost harvests with mold mitigation. If your current IPM program isn’t doing the trick, you may want to follow in hemp’s footsteps and look inside the plant.
I think that we need to start changing the terminology around the hazards associated with cannabis from food safety hazards to product safety hazards. These hazards have not only been associated with harmful effects for those that ingest cannabis infused products, but also for those that consume the cannabis products in other ways such as inhalation (vaping or smoking). So, when we refer to these hazards as food safety hazards, the immediate thought is edibles, which misleads cultivators, manufacturers and consumers to have a false sense of security around the safety of products that are consumed in other ways.
There are several product safety hazards that have been associated with cannabis. These hazards can become a public health problem if not controlled as they could harm the consumer, regardless of the method of consumption.
Let’s take a look at the different types of hazards associated cannabis:
Biological Hazards refer to those microorganisms that can cause illness to the consumer of a product that contain them. They are not visible to the naked eye and are very dangerous when their metabolic by-products (toxins) are ingested or their spores are inhaled. The symptoms for illnesses caused by these microorganisms will vary. Consumers may experience gastrointestinal discomfort (vomiting, diarrhea), headaches, fever and other symptoms. The ingestion of these pathogens, allergens or their by-products may lead to death, if the illness is not treated on time or if the consumer of the product is immunocompromised. In addition, the inhalation of mold spores when smoking cannabis products, can lead to lung disease and death. Some of the biological hazards associated with cannabis are: Salmonella sp., E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Aspergillus sp. and Penicillium sp.
Chemical Hazards refer to those chemicals that can be present in the plant or finished product due to human applications (pesticides), operational processes (extraction solvents and cleaning chemicals), soil properties (heavy metals), environmental contamination (radiological chemicals) or as a result of occurring naturally (mycotoxins and allergens). Consuming high concentrations of cleaning chemicals in a product can lead to a wide range of symptoms from mild rash, burning sensation in the oral-respiratory system, gastrointestinal discomfort or death. In addition, long term exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, radiological contaminants and mycotoxins may lead to the development of cancers.
Physical Hazards refer to those foreign materials that may be present in the plant or finished product. Foreign materials such as rocks, plastics or metals can cause harm to the consumer by chipping teeth or laceration of the mouth membranes (lips, inner cheeks, tong, esophagus, etc.) In the worst-case scenario, physical hazards may lead to choking, which can cause death due to asphyxiation.
These hazards can be prevented, eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level when foundational programs (Good Agricultural/Cultivation Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, Allergen Management Program, Pest Control, etc.) are combined with a Food [Product] Safety Plan. These lead to a Food [Product] Safety Management System that is designed to keep consumers safe, regardless of the method of consumption.
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.”
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.
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:
Take 1 gram of cannabis flower or non-flower sample. Or take environmental swab
Drop sample in solution. Swab should already be in solution
Transfer 1ml of solution into 1.5ml tube
Conduct two 3-minute centrifugation steps to separate leaf material, free-floating DNA and create a small pellet with live cells
Conduct cell lysis by adding digestion buffer to sample on heat blocks for 1 hour
Conduct Loci enhancement PCR of sample for 1 hour
Conduct Labelling PCR which essentially attaches a fluorescent tag on the analyte DNA for 1 hour
Pipette into the Multiplex microarray well where hybridization of sample to probes for 30 minutes
Conduct wash cycle for 15 minutes
Dry and image the slide in imager
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.
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
Mold is ubiquitous in nature and can be found everywhere.1 Cannabis growers know this all too well – the cannabis plant, by nature, is an extremely mold-susceptible crop, and growers battle it constantly.
Of course, managing mold doesn’t mean eradicating mold entirely – that’s impossible. Instead, cultivation professionals must work to minimize the amount of mold to the point where plants can thrive, and finished products are safe for consumption.
Let’s begin with that end in mind – a healthy plant, grown, cured and packaged for sale. In a growing number of states, there’s a hurdle to clear before the product can be sold to consumers – state-mandated testing.
So how do you ensure that the product clears the testing process within guidelines for mold? And what tools can be employed in biological warfare?
Mold: At Home in Cannabis Plants
It helps to first understand how the cannabis plant becomes an optimal environment.
The cannabis flower was designed to capture pollen floating in the air or brought by a pollinating insect.
Once a mold spore has landed in a flower, the spore will begin to grow. The flower will continue to grow as well, and eventually, encapsulate the mold. Once the mold is growing in the middle of the flower, there is no way to get rid of it without damaging the flower.
A Name with Many Varieties
The types of spores found in or around a plant can make or break whether mold will end with bad product.
Aspergillus for example, is a mold that can produce mycotoxins, which are toxic to humans2. For this reason, California has mandatory testing3for certain aspergillus molds.
Another example, Basidiospores, are found outside, in the air. These are spores released from mushrooms and have no adverse effects on cannabis or a cannabis cultivation facility.
Fungi like powdery mildew and botrytis (PM and Bud Rot) typically release spores in the air before they are physically noticed on plants. Mold spores like these can survive from one harvest to the next – they can be suspended in the air for hours and be viable for years.
How Mold Travels
Different types of spores – the reproductive parts of mold – get released from different types of mold. Similar to plants and animals, mold reproduces when resources are deemed sufficient.
The opposite is also true that if the mold is under enough stress, such as a depleting nutrient source, it can be forced into reproduction to save itself.4
In the end, mold spores are released naturally into the air for many reasons, including physical manipulation of a plant, which, of course, is an unavoidable task in a cultivation facility.5
Trimming Areas: A Grow’s Highest Risk for Mold
Because of the almost-constant physical manipulation of plants that happen inside its walls, a grow’s trimming areas typically have the highest spore counts. Even the cleanest of plants will release spores during trimming.
These rooms also have the highest risk for cross contamination, since frequently, growers dry flower in the same room as they trim. Plus, because trimming can be labor intensive, with a large number of people entering and leaving the space regularly, spores are brought in and pushed out and into another space.
The Battle Against Mold
The prevalence and ubiquitous nature of mold in a cannabis facility means that the fight against it must be smart, and it must be thorough.
By incorporating an upstream approach to facility biosecurity, cultivators can protect themselves against testing failures and profit losses.
Biosecurity must be all encompassing, including everything from standard operating procedures and proper environmental controls, to fresh air exchange and surface sanitation/disinfection.
One of the most effective tactics in an upstream biosecurity effort is fungal monitoring.
Ways to Monitor Mold
Determining the load or amount of mold that is in a facility is and always will be common practice. This occurs in a few ways.
Post-harvest testing is in place to ensure the safety of consumers, but during the growing process, is typically done using “scouting reports.” A scouting report is a human report: when personnel physically inspect all or a portion of the crop. A human report, unfortunately, can lead to human error, and this often doesn’t give a robust view of the facility mold picture.
Another tool is agar plates. These petri dishes can be opened and set in areas suspected to have mold. Air moves past the plate and the mold spores that are viable land on the dishes. However, this process is time intensive, and still doesn’t give a complete picture.
Alternatively, growers can use spore traps to monitor for mold.
Spore traps draw a known volume of air through a cassette.6 The inside of the cassette is designed to force the air toward a sticky surface, which is capable of capturing spores and other materials. The cassette is sent to a laboratory for analysis, where they will physically count and identify what was captured using a microscope.
Spore trap results can show the entire picture of a facility’s mold concerns. This tool is also fast, able to be read on your own or sent to a third party for quick and unbiased review. The information yielded is a useful indicator for mold load and which types are prevalent in the facility.
Spore Trap Results: A Story Told
What’s going on inside of a facility has a direct correlation to what’s happening outside, since facility air comes infromthe outside. Thus, spore traps are most effective when you compare a trap inside with one set outside.
When comparing the two, you can see what the plants are doing, view propagating mold, and understand which of the spore types are only found inside.
Similar to its use in homes and businesses for human health purposes, monitoring can indicate the location of mold growth in a particular area within a facility.
These counts can be used to determine the efficacy of cleaning and disinfecting a space, or to find water leaks or areas that are consistently wet (mold will grow quickly and produce spores in these areas).
Using Spore Traps to See Seasonality Changes, Learn CCPs
Utilizing spore traps for regular, facility-wide mold monitoring is advantageous for many reasons.
One example: Traps can help determine critical control points (CCP) for mold.
What does this look like? If the spore count is two times higher than usual, mitigating action needs to take place. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies like cleaning and disinfecting the space, or spraying a fungicide, are needed to bring the spore count down to its baseline.
For example, most facilities will see a spike in spore counts during the times of initial flower production/formation (weeks two to three of the flower cycle).
Seasonal trends can be determined, as well, since summer heat and rain will increase the mold load while winter cold may minimize it.
Using Fungal Monitoring in an IPM Strategy
Fungal monitoring – especially using a spore trap – is a critical upstream step in a successful IPM strategy. But it’s not the only step. In fact, there are five:
Identify/Monitor… Using a spore trap.
Evaluate…Spore trap results will indicate if an action is needed. Elevated spore counts will be the action threshold, but it can also depend on the type of spores found.
Prevention…Avoiding mold on plants using quality disinfection protocols as often as possible.
Action…What will be done to remedy the presence of mold? Examples include adding disinfection protocols, applying a fungicide, increasing air exchanges, and adding a HEPA filter.
Monitor…Constant monitoring is key. More eyes monitoring is better, and will help find Critical Control Points.
Each step must be followed to succeed in the battle against mold.
Of course, in the battle, there may be losses. If you experience a failed mandatory product testing result, use the data from the failure to fix your facility and improve for the future.
The data can be used to determine efficacy of standard operating procedures, action thresholds, and other appropriate actions. Plus, you can add a spore trap analysis for pre- and post- disinfection protocols, showing whether the space was really cleaned and disinfected after application. This will also tell you whether your products are working.
Leveraging all of the tools available will ensure a safe, clean cannabis product for consumers.
ASTM standard “Assessment of fungal growth in buildings” Miller, J. D., et al., “Air Sampling Results in Relation to Extent of Fungal Colonization of Building Materials in Some Water Damaged Buildings,” Indoor Air, Vol 10, 2000, pp. 146–151.
HACCP is a food safety program developed in the 1960s for the food manufacturing industry, mandated for meat, seafood and juice and adopted by foodservice for the safe serving of meals at restaurants. With state requirements for the safe production of cannabis-infused products, namely edibles, facilities may be inspected against HACCP principles. The cannabis industry and state inspectors recognize the need for safe edible manufacture. Lessons can be learned from the food industry, which has advanced beyond HACCP plans to food safety plans, starting with procurement and including the shipment of finished product to customers.
In my work with the food industry, I write HACCP and food safety plans and deliver training on food safety. In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about the identification of hazards, which is the first step in HACCP plan development. Before we continue with the next HACCP step, I will discuss Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). GMPs are the foundation on which HACCP is built. In other words, without GMPs in place, the facility will not have a successful HACCP program. GMPs are required in the food, dietary supplement and pharmaceutical industries, all under the enforcement of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Without federal regulation for cannabis edible manufacture, there may not be state-mandated requirements for GMPs. Let me warn you that any food safety program will not succeed without proper control of GMPs.
GMPs cover all of your programs and procedures to support food safety without having a direct, instant control. For example, when brownies are baked as edibles, food safety is controlled by the time and temperature of baking. A written recipe and baking procedure are followed for the edible. The time and temperature can be recorded to provide documentation of proper baking. In the food industry, this is called a process preventative control, which is critical to food safety and is part of a HACCP plan. Failure of proper time and temperature of baking not only leads to an unacceptable product in terms of quality, but results in an unsafe product that should not be sold.
Back to GMPs. Now think of everything that was done up to the steps of mixing and baking. Let’s start with personnel. Facilities for edibles have hiring practices. Once an employee is hired, the employee is trained, and training will include food safety procedures. When working at the job after training, the employee measuring ingredients will demonstrate proper grooming and hand washing. Clean aprons, hairnets, beard nets and gloves will be provided by the facility and worn by the employee. The same goes for the employee that bakes and the employee that packages the edible. One category of GMPs is Personnel.
Edibles facilities are not foodservice; they are manufacturing. A second GMP category is cleaning and sanitizing. Food safety is controlled through proper cleaning and sanitizing of food contact surfaces (FCS). The edible facility will have in place the frequency and methods for cleaning all parts of the facility- outside, offices, restrooms, break room and others. GMPs cover the general cleaning procedures and procedures for cleaning receiving, storage; what we would consider processing to include weighing, process steps and packaging; finished product storage and shipping. Management of the facility decides the methods and frequency of cleaning and sanitizing with greater care given to processing. Without proper cleaning and sanitizing, a facility cannot achieve food safety.
I could go on and on about GMPs. Other GMPs include water safety, integrity of the buildings, pest control program, procurement, sewage disposal and waste disposal. Let’s transition back to HACCP. In Part 1 of this series, I explained identification of hazards. Hazards are one of three types: biological, chemical and physical.
At this point, I am not surprised if you are overwhelmed. After reading Part 1 of this series, did you form a food safety team? At each edibles facility, there should be at least one employee who is trained externally in food safety to the standard that foodservice meets. Classes are offered locally and frequently. When the facility is ready, the next step of training is a HACCP workshop for the food industry, not foodservice. Edibles facilities are not foodservice; they are manufacturing. Many colleges and associations provide HACCP training. Finally, at the least, one employee should attend a workshop for Preventive Controls Qualified Individual.
To institute proper GMPs, go to ConnectFood.com for a GMP checklist. Did you draw up a flow diagram after reading Part 1? With a flow diagram that starts at Receiving and ends at Shipping, the software at ConnectFood.com takes you through the writing steps of a HACCP or food safety plan. There are many resources out there for GMPs, so it can get overwhelming. ConnectFood.com is my favorite resource.
The next step in HACCP development after identification of hazards is to identify the exact step where the hazard will be controlled. Strictly speaking, HACCP only covers process preventive controls, which typically start with a weigh step and end with a packaging step. A facility may also have a step where temperature must be controlled for food safety, e.g. cooling. In HACCP, there are commonly two process preventive controls:
Biological hazard of Salmonella and Escherichia coli: the heat step
Physical hazard of metal: metal detector
Strictly speaking, HACCP does not include cleaning, sanitizing and supplier approval for procurement of ingredients and packaging. I hope you see that HACCP is not enough. There have been hundreds of recalls and outbreaks due to problems in non-processing steps. The FDA requires food manufactures to go beyond HACCP and follow a written food safety plan, which includes hazards controlled at these steps:
Biological hazard of Listeria monocytogenes: cleaning and sanitizing of the processing environment and equipment
Physical hazards coming in with ingredients: supplier approval
Physical hazard of glass and hard plastic: Here I am thinking of glass breaking or plastic pieces flying off buckets. This is an internal hazard and is controlled by following written procedures. The written document is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
Chemical hazard of pesticides: supplier approval
Chemical hazard of mycotoxins: supplier approval
Chemical hazard of allergens: supplier approval, label check at Receiving and product labeling step
Does a cannabis edible facility honestly not care or not control for pesticides in ingredients because this is not part of HACCP? No. There are two ways for procurement of ingredients in which pesticides are controlled. Either the cannabis cultivation is controlled as part of the samebusiness or the facility works with a supplier to confirm the ingredient meets pesticide tolerances. Strictly speaking, this control is not part of HACCP. For this and many other reasons, HACCP is a good place to start the control of food safety when built on a solid foundation of GMPs. In the same way the food industry is required to go beyond HACCP with a food safety plan, the cannabis industry must go beyond HACCP.
My thoughts will be shared in a webinar on May 2nd hosted by CIJ and NEHA. I encourage you to listen in to continue this discussion.Please comment on this blog post below. I love feedback!
Government regulations keep millions of Americans safe every year by controlling what companies can put in their products and the standards those products must meet to be sold to consumers.
Enter the strange case of legal cannabis: In order for cannabis to be legally distributed by licensed medical professionals and businesses, it must be tested. But unlike other consumable goods, cannabis is not regulated by the FDA. Without an overarching federal policy requiring cannabis testing laboratory accreditation, the testing and laboratory requirements differ greatly across state lines.For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important.
To be federally regulated, cannabis would first have to be federally legalized. It turns out that states and businesses alike are not willing to wait for a federal mandate. Many states have begun to adopt standards for cannabis testing and some, such as Ohio, have even announced mandatory ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation for all cannabis testing laboratories. As the industry evolves, increased compliance expectations are certain to evolve in tandem.
Some cannabis labs have even taken the initiative to seek ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation of their own volition. Seth Wong, President of TEQ Analytics Laboratories, shared in a press release:
“By achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, TEQ Analytical Labs believes that we can address the concerns throughout the cannabis industry regarding insufficient and unreliable scientific analysis by providing our clients with State required tests that are accredited by an international standard.”
There are key reasons why accreditation in cannabis testing labs is important. First and foremost, cannabis is a consumable product. Like fruits and vegetables, cannabis is prone to pesticides, fungi and contaminants. The result of putting a potentially hazardous material on the market without proper and documented testing could lead to a public health crisis. An accredited testing lab, however, will ensure that the cannabis products they test are free from harmful contaminants.
For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important. Because many consumers of medical cannabis are immuno-compromised (such as in the case of chemotherapy patients), ensuring that products are free from any and all contaminants is critical. Further, in order to accurately determine both short- and long-term effects of prescribed cannabis consumption, accredited and compliant laboratories are necessary.
Accreditation standards like ISO/IEC 17025 also provide confidence that testing is performed properly and to an internationally accepted standard. Rather than returning a “pass/fail” rating on products, the Cannabis Safety Institute reports that an ISO/IEC 17025 laboratory is required to produce numerical accuracy percentages in testing for “at a minimum, cannabinoids, pesticides, microbiology, residual solvents, and water activity.” Reliable data sets that can be reviewed by both accreditors and the public foster trust between producers and consumers.
Finally, ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation demonstrates that a laboratory is properly staffed and trained. The Cannabis Safety Institute’s “Standards for Cannabis Testing Laboratories” explains that conducting proper analytical chemistry on cannabinoids (the chemical compounds extracted from cannabis that alter the brain’s neurotransmitter release) requires personnel who have met specific academic and training credentials. A system to monitor, manage and demonstrate proficiency is necessary to achieve and maintain accreditation. With electronic systems in place, this management and documentation minimizes risk and also minimizes administrative time tracking and maintaining training records.
Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming yearsFor cannabis testing labs, utilizing a comprehensive software solution to achieve and maintain compliance to standards such as ISO/IEC 17025 is key. Absent of a software solution, the necessary compliance requirements can become a significant burden to the organization. Paper tracking systems and complex spreadsheets open up organizations to the likelihood of errors and ultimately risk.
Because ISO/IEC 17025 has clearly defined expectations for training, a software solution also streamlines the training process while simultaneously documenting proficiency. By utilizing role-based trainings, organizations can be confident employees are receiving proper onboarding and in-service training. Additionally, the effectiveness of training can be proven with reports, which results in smoother audits and assessments.
Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming years- which means utilizing technology tools such as electronic workflows to ensure proper process controls. Beyond adding critical visibility, workflows also create efficiencies that can eliminate the need to increase staffing as companies expand and grow.
For an industry that is changing at a rapid pace, ensuring traceability, efficient processes and visibility across organizations is paramount. Using a system that enables automation, process control, document management and documented training procedures is a step in the right direction. With the proper software tools in place, cannabis testing labs can achieve compliance goals, demonstrate reliable and relevant results and most importantly ensure consumer safety.
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
Screening for pesticide levels
Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
Moisture content measurements
Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
Cannabis samples are received.
The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
Barcode label designing and printing
Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
Instant data capture by scanning barcodes
Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability
Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management
Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity
Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management
Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import
Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
21 CFR Part 11 compliant
Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation
Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities
Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management
Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Promotes better data management and resource allocation
Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems
Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance
Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality
Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
As many US States and Canadian provinces approach legalization of cannabis, the question of regulatory oversight has become a pressing issue. While public awareness is mainly focused on issues like age restrictions and impaired driving, there is another practical question to consider: should cannabis be treated as a drug or a food product when it comes to safety? In the US, FDA governs both food and drugs, but in Canada, drugs are regulated by Health Canada while food products are regulated under the CFIA.There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled
Of course, there are common issues like dosage and potency that pharmaceutical companies typically worry about as the industry is moving to classifying its products in terms of percentage of chemical composition (THC, CBD, etc. in a strain), much as we categorize alcohol products by the percentage of alcohol. However, with the exception of topical creams and ointments, many cannabis products are actually food products. Even the herb itself can be brewed into teas, added to baked goods or made into cannabis-infused butters, oils, capsules and tinctures.
As more people gain access to and ingest cannabis products, it’s only a matter of time before food safety becomes a primary concern for producers and regulators. So when it comes to food safety, what do growers, manufacturers and distributors need to consider? The fact is, it’s not that different from other food products. There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled. Continue reading below for the top four safety hazards for the cannabis industry and learn how to receive free HACCP plans to help control these hazards.
Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud
Just like any other agricultural product, improper growing conditions, handling and storage can result in mold growth, which produce aflatoxins that can cause liver cancer and other serious health problems. During storage, the danger is humidity; humidity must be monitored in storage rooms twice a day and the meter must be calibrated every month. During transportation, it is important to monitor and record temperatures in trucks. Trucks should also be cleaned weekly or as required. Products received at a cannabis facilities should be tested upon receiving and contaminated products must always be rejected, segregated and disposed of safely.
Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants
Chemical residues can be introduced at several points during the production and storage process. During growing, every facility should follow instructions for applying fertilizers and pesticides to crops. This includes waiting for a sufficient amount of time before harvesting. When fertilizer is being applied, signs must be posted. After cannabis products have been harvested, chemical controls must be in place. All chemicals should be labelled and kept in contained chemical storage when not in use to prevent contamination. Only food-grade chemicals (e.g. cleaners, sanitizers) should be used during curing, drying, trimming and storage.
Without a comprehensive food safety program, problems will inevitably arise.There is also a risk of excessive concentration of chemicals in the washing tank. As such, chemical concentrations must be monitored for. In general, water (obviously essential for the growing process) also carries risks of pathogenic bacteria like staphylococcus aureus or salmonella. For this reason, city water (which is closely controlled in most municipalities) should be used with an annual report and review. Facilities that use well water must test frequently and water samples must be tested every three months regardless.
Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations
Insects, rodents and other pests spread disease. In order to prevent infestations, a pest control program must be implemented, with traps checked monthly by a qualified contractor and verified by a designated employee. It is also necessary to have a building procedure (particularly during drying), which includes a monthly inspection, with no holes or gaps allowed. No product should leave the facility uncovered to prevent fecal matter and other hazards from coming into contact with the product. Contamination can also occur during storage on pallets, so pallets must be inspected for punctures in packaging material.
Furthermore, even the best controlled facility can fall victim to the shortcomings of their suppliers. Procedures must be in place to ensure that suppliers are complying with pest and building control procedures, among others. Certifications should be acquired and tracked upon renewal.
Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling
Employee training is key for any food facility. When employees are handling products, the risk of cross-contamination is highest. Facilities must have GMP and personnel hygiene policies in place, with training conducted upon hiring and refreshed monthly. Employees must be encouraged to stay home when sick and instructed to wear proper attire (gloves, hair nets, etc.), while glass, jewelry and outside food must not be allowed inside the facility. Tools used during harvesting and other stages may also carry microorganisms if standard cleaning procedures are not in place and implemented correctly by employees.
As the cannabis industry grows, and regulatory bodies like the FDA and CFIA look to protect public safety, we expect that more attention will be paid to other food safety issues like packaging safety (of inks and labels), allergen control and others. In the production of extracts, for example, non-food safe solvents could be used or extracts can be mixed with ingredients that have expiration dates, like coconut oil. There is one area in which the cannabis industry may lead the way, however. More and more often, risks of food terrorism, fraud and intentional adulteration are gripping the food industry as the global food chain becomes increasingly complex. It’s safe to say that security at cannabis facilities is probably unparalleled.
All of this shows that cannabis products, especially edibles (and that includes capsules and tinctures), should be treated the same as other food products simply because they have the same kinds of hazards. Without a comprehensive food safety program (that includes a plan, procedures, training, monitoring and verification), problems will inevitably arise.
I have been studying microorganisms for over 35 years, and the elusive critters still fascinate me! Here in Microbiology 101, I write about the foundation of knowledge on which all microbiologists build. You may have a general interest in microbiology or have concerns in your operation. By understanding microbiology, you understand the diversity of microorganisms, their source, control of microorganisms and their importance.
The term microbiology covers every living being we cannot see with the naked eye. The smallest microbe is a virus. Next in size are the bacteria, then yeast and mold cells, and the largest microbes are the protozoans. The tiny structure of a virus may be important in the plant pathology of cannabis, but will not grow in concentrates or infused products. A virus is not living, until it storms the gate of a living cell and overtakes the functions within the cell. Viruses are the number one cause of foodborne illness, with the number one virus called Norovirus. Think stomach flu. Think illness on cruise ships. Viruses are a food service problem and can be prevented by requiring employees to report sickness, have good personal hygiene including good hand washing, and, as appropriate, wear gloves. Following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) is critical in preventing the transfer of viruses to a product where the consumer can be infected.
The largest microbial cell is the protozoan. They are of concern in natural water sources, but like viruses, will not grow in cannabis products. Control water quality through GMPs, and you control protozoans. Viruses and protozoans will not be further discussed here. Bacteria, yeast and mold are the focus of further discussion. As a food microbiologist, my typical application of this information is in the manufacturing of food. Because Microbiology 101 is a general article on microbiology, you can apply the information to growing, harvesting, drying, manufacture of infused products and dispensing.
It is not possible to have sterile products. Even the canning process of high temperature for an extended time allows the survival of resistant bacterial spores. Astronauts take dehydrated food into space, and soldiers receive MREs; both still contain microbes. Sterility is never the goal. So, what is normal? Even with the highest standards, it is normal to have microbes in your products. Your goal is to eliminate illness-causing microorganisms, i.e. pathogens. Along the way, you will decrease spoilage microbes too, making a product with higher quality.
Yeast and mold were discussed on CIJ in a previous article, Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know. Fuzzy mold seen on the top of food left in the refrigerator too long is a quality issue, not a safety issue. Mold growth is a problem on damaged cannabis plants or cuttings and may produce mycotoxin, a toxic chemical hazard. Following Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) will control mold growth. Once the plant is properly dried, mold will not grow and produce toxin. Proper growing, handling and drying prevents mycotoxins. Like mold, growth of yeast is a quality issue, not a safety issue. As yeast grow, they produce acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. While these fermentation products are unwanted, they are not injurious. I am aware that some states require cannabis-infused products to be alcohol-free, but that is not a safety issue discussed here.
What are the sources of microorganisms?
People. Employees who harvest cannabis may transfer microorganisms to the plant. Later, employees may be the source of microbes at the steps of trimming, drying, transfer or portioning, extract processing, infused product manufacture and packaging.
Ingredients, Supplies and Materials. Anything you purchase may be a source of microorganisms. Procure quality merchandise. Remember the saying, “you get what you pay for.”
Environment. Starting with the outdoors, microbes come from wind, soil, pests, bird droppings and water. When plants are harvested outdoors or indoors, microbes come from the tools and bins. Maintain clean growing and harvesting tools in good working condition to minimize contamination with microbes. For any processing, microbes come from air currents, use of water, and all surfaces in the processing environment from dripping overhead pipes to floor drains and everything in between.
In Part 2 I will continue to discuss the diversity of microorganisms, and future articles will cover Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and food safety in more detail. What concerns do you have at each step of operations? Are you confident in your employees and their handling of the product? As each state works to ensure public health, cannabis-infused products will receive the same, if not more, scrutiny as non-cannabis food and beverages. With an understanding and control of pathogens, you can focus on providing your customers with your highest quality product.
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