The track will have presentations discussing food safety planning in cannabis manufacturing, HACCP, GMPs, regulatory compliance and supply chain issues among other areas. One particular topic of interest in the quality and safety of cannabis products is laboratory testing. At the event this year, leading laboratory accreditation bodies in the country will sit together on a panel titled Accreditation, Regulation & Certification: Cannabis Labs and Production.
Laboratories that are new to the industry and looking to get accredited should be aware of the new ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standard, which was released last year. According to Tracy Szerszen, labs that have already been accredited to the 2005 version will be required to transition to the 2017 version by November 29, 2020. “This can be done in conjunction with routine assessments scheduled in 2019 and 2020,” says Szerszen. “However, laboratories are cautioned to transition within a reasonable timeframe to avoid their 17025: 2005 certificate from lapsing prior to the transition deadline. Some of the changes to the standard include but are not limited to: the re-alignment of clauses similar to ISO 9001:2015 and other ISO industry standards, modifications to reporting and decision rules, the addition of risked based thinking and a new approach to managing complaints.” Szerszen, along with the other panelists, will go much more in-depth on changes to the new ISO 17025 and other topics during the panel at the Food Safety Consortium.
Some of the other topics the panel will discuss include:
ISO/IEC 17025 –what’s expected, benefits of accreditation, common deficiencies, updates to the new 17025 standard
Standards available for production facilities-GMPs & GFSI standards
How standards can be used to safeguard the quality of production and safety requirements
An open discussion with panelists from leading accreditation bodies on the state of cannabis lab testing
According to Chris Gunning, many states are requiring accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025, the standard used throughout the world in many other high-profile industries such as the testing of food and pharmaceuticals, environmental testing, and biosafety testing. “In an industry where there are few standard methods, where one hears that you can ‘pay to play,’ and where there are ‘novice’ laboratories popping up with little experience in operating a testing laboratory, it is extremely important to have an experienced, independent, 3rd party accrediting body evaluating the laboratory,” says Gunning. “This process confirms their adherence to appropriate quality management system standards, standard methods or their own internally developed methods, and can verify that those methods produce valid results. Ultimately, the process of accreditation gives the public confidence that a testing laboratory is meeting their state’s requirements and therefore consumers have access to a quality product.” He says most states with legal cannabis recognize the need for product testing by a credentialed laboratory.
Another important topic that the panel will address is the role of food safety standards in the cannabis industry. Lauren Maloney says cannabis product manufacturers should consider GMP and HACCP certifications for their businesses. “Food safety is important to the cannabis industry because although individual states have mandated several food safety requirements there still considerable risks involved in the production of cannabis products,” says Lauren Maloney. “Consumers want the assurance that the cannabis products are safe and therefore should be treated like a food product. Because FDA does not have oversight of these production facilities, third party certification is essential to ensure these facilities implement a robust food safety system.”
In A Culture of Food Safety: A Position Paper (2018), the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) defines food safety culture as the “shared values, beliefs, and norms that affect mind-set and behavior toward food safety in, across, and throughout an organization.” In other words, food safety culture in your workplace is the “this is how we do things around here.”
A food safety culture needs to be relentlessly communicated – everyone needs to know it is his or her job, not just a dusty slogan on the wall or a whisper down the halls.Building a strong food safety culture is particularly relevant to the cannabis workplace because of the unique history of the workers and the unique needs of the consumers. The cannabis industry is special in that it was an industry before it became regulated. As such, there are many workers in the industry who have a deep passion for cannabis products, but with experience rooted in working within only a few official standards. Thus, the behavior and mind-set of workers in the cannabis industry must adjust to new regulations. However, even currently, standards are ever changing and vary from state to state; this causes further confusion and inconsistency for you and your workers. On top of that, now that cannabis is legalized in certain pockets, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant or the young. These consumers in particular need and deserve access to safe cannabis products every experience. Therefore, it is that much more important to develop a strong food safety culture in the workplace to promote safe, quality cannabis large-scale production for the larger, wider audience.
To achieve a food safety culture, GFSI emphasizes the vision and mission of the business, the role of the leaders in the organization, and the continuity of communication and training. GFSI also emphasizes that these components are interrelated and all are needed to strengthen a food safety culture. Food safety culture components can be simplified into: 1) things you believe, 2) things you say, and 3) things you do.“this is how we do things around here.”
Things You Believe
Food safety culture starts from the top, with the executive team and senior managers. It is this group that dictates the vision and mission of the business and decides to include food safety and quality as a part of this guiding star. Moreover, it is this group that commits to the support for food safety by investing the time, money and resources. The message then has to spread from the executive team and senior managers to an interdepartmental team within the workplace. That way, the values of food safety can be further shared to front-line workers during onboarding and/or continuous training. To restart a food safety culture, a town hall can be a useful tool to discuss priorities in the workplace. Overall, it is important to have every worker believe in producing safe food and that every worker is a part of and has ownership of contributing to the food safety culture at your workplace (GFSI, 2018).
Things You Say
A food safety culture needs to be relentlessly communicated – everyone needs to know it is his or her job, not just a dusty slogan on the wall or a whisper down the halls. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a saying that “if it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” Thus, the guidelines for a food safety culture need to be embedded in the policies, programs and procedures; and these guidelines need to be a part of training from day one and supplemented with periodic reminders. For effectiveness, make the communication engaging, relevant and simple – use your workers to pose for posters, use digital tools such as memes. In his presentation at the 2015 Food Safety Consortium, Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, says “How many of you created training videos that you show the desired behavior once? You should probably show the behavior more than once and by a few different employees so that when they see it, they see multiple people in the video doing it and that’s the social norm.” By sending a consistent message, a food safety culture can flourish in your workplace.A food safety culture does not happen once; a food safety culture is a long-term commitment with continuous improvement.
Things You Do
A food safety culture does not happen once; a food safety culture is a long-term commitment with continuous improvement. Periodic evaluation of food safety metrics and alignment with business goals contribute to maintaining a food safety culture – it is useful to learn from successes as well as mistakes. In the same presentation mentioned above, Yiannas discusses “Learning from the wrong way [mistakes] lessens the likelihood that we will become complacent” where he defines complacency as “a feeling of quiet security, often while unaware of some potential danger or defect that lurks ahead.” Without the constant commitment, businesses can falter in their food safety and cause costly mistakes – whether that be recalls or illnesses or worse. By not becoming complacent and emphasizing constant accountability, a food safety culture can thrive at your workplace and make your workplace thrive.
With the regulated cannabis industry still in its infancy, the time is now for every cannabis workplace to instill a food safety culture. Before being mandated, the cannabis industry can rally for food safety because it is the right thing to do. With participation from each workplace, the industry as a whole can be united in producing safe product and be better positioned to change stigmas.
Now that governments are legalizing cannabis around the world, the question looms for cannabis businesses seeking legitimacy in the new industry: what safety standards should apply? This question is more difficult as different jurisdictions grapple with defining and implementing legal requirements and struggle to keep up with the pace of growth.
For visionary cannabis business, it makes sense to anticipate requirements – not only from governments, but also from consumers and partners. Most regulations currently focus on security and basic health issues but, in the long-term, the industry that may offer the best model for cannabis businesses isn’t pharmaceuticals, but food. Cannabis (especially edibles) share similar hazards and traceability challenges with food products, so taking the lead from the food industry will be much more applicable and could offer greater benefits.
Companies that achieve the highest and most flexible certification will enjoy a crucial competitive advantage when it comes to winning market share, popularity and consumer trust. Let’s take a quick look at the different options of food safety (and quality) certifications that cannabis businesses may consider. But first, let’s clarify two important definitions that are necessary to understand the food industry.
Basic Concepts from the Food Industry
The first acronym you should be aware of is GFSI, the Global Food Safety Initiative. GFSI is a food industry-driven global collaboration body created to advance food safety. When it comes to understanding GFSI, the important part to note is that certifications recognized by GFSI (like SQF, FSSC 22000, and BRC) are universally accepted. Companies operating under GFSI-recognized certifications open the most doors to the most markets, providing the highest potential for growth. For this reason, cannabis companies should be aware of and seriously consider seeking GFSI certifications
Secondly, many food safety programs are built around Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP. While many people may talk about HACCP like it’s a certification in and of itself, it is not actually a certification like the others on this list, but rather a methodology that helps companies systematically identify and control biological, chemical, and physical hazards that may arise during food production, handling, and distribution. Companies that adopt this methodology end up with a HACCP plan, which must then be followed at all times to avoid and address health and safety issues. It’s often required for food businesses and is generally required in most of the world, except where ISO 22000 is more common, primarily in Europe and countries whose primary export market is European. Since HACCP plans are also incorporated into most of the other achievable certifications, developing a HACCP program early will build a strong foundation for higher levels of certification.
Certifications for the Cannabis Industry
Now that we understand the basics of GFSI and HACCP, we can see how the certifications that have been developed by and for the food industry may apply to cannabis companies – and which you should consider necessary for your business.
GMP: Good Manufacturing Practice Certification
GMP (or sometimes cGMP) certification requires that companies abide by a set of good manufacturing processes for food and beverage products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, dietary supplements and medical devices. Since it really only covers basic sanitation and employee hygiene, it is considered the lowest level of certification in the industry. It is not recognized by GFSI, but GFSI does require all the standard benchmarks of a GMP be met before granting GFSI certification.
While GMP certification is often required, it is far below the standard that should be upheld by any serious businesses. It doesn’t cover many of the different types of hazards associated with food production – that I have argued will become increasingly relevant to cannabis producers – and doesn’t provide a systematic approach to identifying and controlling hazards like a HACCP program would. It’s really just about providing the basic procedures and checks to ensure that the facility is clean and that employees aren’t contaminating the products.
Final Verdict: Recommended, but as the bare minimum. GMP is not sufficient on its own to adequately control the risk of recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks, and it limits a company’s market potential because it lacks the GFSI worldwide stamp of approval.
Some companies consider GMP certification a good place to start if you’re on a tight deadline for distribution in markets where only GMP is required by regulators. I would argue that striving for the minimum standards will be costly in the long run. Health, safety and quality standards are the foundations upon which winning companies are built. It’s critical to develop a corporate culture that will lead to GFSI-recognized programs without major organizational overhaul. Start on the right foot and set your sights higher – obtain a certification that will stand the test of time and avoid the pain and risks of trying to change entrenched behaviors.
SQF: Safe Quality Food Program Certification
SQF is my number one recommendation as the best certification for the cannabis industry. One of the most common certifications in North America, SQF is a food safety management system recognized by retailers and consumers alike. It is administered by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and, importantly, recognized by GFSI, which gives companies a huge competitive edge. SQF focuses on the whole supply chain.
SQF was also the first to develop a cannabis program and is currently the leader in this market segment. It is also the scheme that best integrates food safety with quality. Since it is recognized worldwide, SQF provides the greatest leverage to accelerate a company’s growth. Once obtained, products with SQF certification can often jump the queue to enter different regulatory markets.
Final verdict: Highly recommended. A cannabis company with an SQF certification has the greatest advantage because it offers the broadest worldwide reach and keeps companies a step ahead of competitors. It’s also achievable – just this past April, Curaleaf Florida ostensibly became the first cannabis company to achieve SQF certification. It is tough, but fair and practical.
Other Certification Standards
SQF is the top certification that should be considered by cannabis companies, especially outside of Europe. However, the food industry has several other major types of standards that, at this time, have limited relevance to the cannabis industry today. Let’s take a quick look.
When considering GFSI-recognized programs, the main choice for food companies is between SQF, which we’ve covered, and BRC (the British Retail Consortium Certification). BRC has the most in common with SQF but, while SQF was originally developed for processed foods, BRC was developed in the UK for meat products. Today, they are quite similar, but BRC doesn’t focus quite as much on the quality component as SQF does. While BRC could be a good option, they don’t have a program for cannabis and, thus far, do not appear to be as friendly toward the cannabis industry.The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages
Across the pond, there are a few other certification standards that are more common than SQF. One of these is ISO 22000, which is the certification for the food-related standard created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Europe. It is not recognized by GFSI but is the primary system used in Europe. If your market is exclusively in the EU, it might be a good choice for you in the future. However, to date, there is no indication that any cannabis company has achieved ISO 22000 certification. Some cannabis companies have attained certification for other ISO standards like ISO 9001:2015, which specifies requirements for quality control systems, and ISO/IEC 17025 for laboratory testing. These are generally more relevant for the pharmaceutical industry than food and beverage, but still apply to cannabis.
There is the perception that cannabis is more accepted in EU countries like the Netherlands, but the regulatory attitude to cannabis is complicated. In the Netherlands, for example, cannabis isn’t actually legal – “coffee shops” fall under a toleration policy that doesn’t include regulation. Medical cannabis in the Netherlands is all produced by one supplier and several countries in the EU allow for licensed distribution and import, but not domestic production. Various EU countries are trying to keep up with the legalization trend, however. The Czech Republic, Germany, and others all recently introduced legislation for domestic production of cannabis for medical use. For companies with their eye on the EU, it is crucial to watch which regulatory requirements will be implemented in each market and how.
The last certification standard to mention is the result of a compromise between ISO and the more HACCP oriented programs like SQF. FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification) tries to address the gaps between ISO 22000 and GFSI-recognized certifications by introducing another component called PAS 220. Since it is recognized by GFSI, FSSC 22000 is starting to get more traction in the food industry because it makes products a bit easier to export to the EU. FSSC 22000 satisfies the EU ISO standards but isn’t as closely tied to HACCP. We will be keeping an eye on this one.
The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages – but it’s difficult for cannabis companies to understand all the options available and how each apply to their specific products. While markets adjust beyond the preliminary issue of legality, it’s crucial for companies to look forward and comply with safety and quality standards like SQF. Companies who strive for SQF certification (or other GFSI-recognized certifications as they become available) will find themselves far better prepared to seize market share as cannabis markets blossom.
Last week, Curaleaf, a medical cannabis producer and processor in Miami, Florida, announced they have earned the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level II certification. In the press release, they claim they are the first and only medical cannabis company in the state to achieve that certification.
Curaleaf’s products include a line of low-THC and full strength medical cannabis products. They have dispensaries in Miami, Lake Worth, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg, as well as delivery of products from Jacksonville south to Key West.
According to Lindsay Jones, president of Curaleaf Florida, patients ask frequently about the level of safety of cannabis products. “Every day patients express interest and assurance of wanting to know that the foods and medicines they consume are safe and of the best quality available,” says Jones. “This SQF Level II certification that Curaleaf has earned is particularly important for patients and demonstrates that our medical marijuana processing expertise delivers superior quality products for patients in need across Florida.”
Florida’s regulations on medical cannabis producers and processors actually require a form of certification demonstrating proper food safety protocols. “Within 12 months after licensure, a medical marijuana treatment center must demonstrate to the department that all of its processing facilities have passed a Food Safety Good Manufacturing Practices, such as Global Food Safety Initiative or equivalent, inspection by a nationally accredited certifying body,” reads Rule 9 in the 2017 Florida Statute. Edibles producers in Florida “must hold a permit to operate as a food establishment pursuant to chapter 500, the Florida Food Safety Act, and must comply with all the requirements for food establishments pursuant to chapter 500 and any rules adopted thereunder.” The rules also lay out requirements for packaging, dosage and sanitation rules for storage, display and dispensing of edible products.
Looking at SQF Level II certification and GFSI could be a step in the right direction for many cannabis infused product manufacturers, as they are some of the more recognized programs in the food industry.
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