It is official. BfArM, the German version of the Food and Drug Administration and the federal agency with oversight of the national cannabis program, has approved Spanish medical cannabis imports into the country. Indeed, three German companies are now finalizing their paperwork to allow the transfer to be completed.
As Cannabis Industry Journal has learned, at least one of the companies on the Spanish side of the equation is the ever-interesting Alcaliber (Linneo Health). So far, the privately funded company has made smart, strategic business moves through a challenging transition period. With one of the few EU GMP-recognized licenses in Spain, it is a logical choice for German distributors in search of foreign-produced, but up-to-snuff product.
This is a positive and widely predicted turn of events as Germany begins to institutionalize its cannabis program at the next level. As of this fall, three producers will begin to distribute domestically grown cannabis in Germany. However, there is a clear need for a vibrant import market here and there will be for a long time to come.
Domestically grown cannabis, by design at least so far, was never intended to serve the entire base of medical cannabis patients in Germany. And Spain has been, from the beginning of the discussion, along with Portugal, Greece, Poland, Eastern Europe and of course Italy, an attractive market to produce high quality cannabis for export to (at minimum) Germany.
The European Ex Im Market Is Opening
While the Canadians still have an outsize impact on this market, that is clearly a period of time that is coming to an end. Indeed, Canadian produced cannabis is being turned down at the German border for quality issues linked to certification.
This is not a new issue. It has haunted the German market since 2017 and the beginning of the discussion about the German cultivation bid. But now it is official. Beyond Holland, and even Canada, in other words, lower cost cannabis is now entering the German market and from other European countries.
While Portugal and Denmark beat Spain to the punch, however, this is likely to be an impactful development for not only patients, but the entire price discussion. Distributors are clearly on the front lines of not only obtaining high quality cannabis (from somewhere), but meeting a price that is increasingly on the downward slide, just from the pressures of domestic production and the price structure created around the same by the German government.
Producers have been feeling the pinch, no matter where they are based, for at least the last 12 months.
The Impact On The Spanish Cannabis Discussion
It is unlikely that this development will not be duplicated by other Spanish companies vying for entry into the European and German markets. Spain has a thriving grey market cannabis economy in the form of Cannabis Clubs. It also, like Holland, has allowed a semi legitimate market as well as a distribution network to spring up around the same.
However, the times are also clearly changing. Holland is in the midst of regulating even its coffee shop cultivation economy as it becomes one of the most important exporters of medical cannabis to Germany. Expect the same trend in Spain, especially as Europe increasingly comes to the same conclusion as everywhere else. The regulated medical cannabis industry is great for economic development, especially for countries like Spain, with great weather and perhaps an overreliance on the tourism industry.
The Other European Producers Now In View Beyond Spain, Portugal and Denmark have the right to import medical cannabis to Germany. This list is expected to continue to expand as patient numbers grow. Because of the price restraints now placed on the entire market by the German government, however, entering the country with an attractively priced product that will pass muster, not only with regulators but doctors and insurers, is now absolutely the name of the game.
And that is of course, before the recreational and CBD topic even enters the discussion – and both are clearly on the agenda now, across Europe.
If you missed the Cannabis Industry Journal’s 3rd Annual Infused Products Virtual Conference last week, one of the speakers, Ellice Ogle, founder and CEO of Tandem Food presented on Food Safety Culture in the Cannabis Industry. An overview of the information in the presentation can be found here, Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace. Below are answers to some of the post-presentation questions we received, but were unable to answer during the Q&A session. To get your additional questions answered or for a complimentary consultation for your company, specially provided to readers of Cannabis Industry Journal, contact Ellice Ogle at Ellice@tndmfood.com.
Question: What are some recommended digital programs for internal auditing?
Ellice Ogle: Before looking at the tools for conducting an internal audit, understand the goal of the internal audit. One key aspect of internal auditing is knowing which standard(s) to audit against. For example, regulatory audits for cGMP certification are different than optional third-party certifications such as any GFSI scheme (SQF, BRC, PrimusGFS, etc). While the standards ultimately have the same goal of food safety with varying focuses, it is important to have an experienced food safety specialist conduct the audit as realistically as possible. The experienced specialist will then be able to recommend an appropriate tool for internal auditing moving forward, whether it is software such as FoodLogiQ, SafetyChain, Safefood 360°, among many others, or simply providing a template of the audit checklist. Overall, the risk of foodborne illnesses can be minimal, but it takes persistence and commitment to achieve a successful food safety culture. Metrics can assist in assessing the commitment to food safety and, as a result of these efforts, you will minimize the risk of compromising the health and safety of your guests, employees, foods and business. If you want a specific example, I’d like to direct you to a case study in partnership with Heylo LLC in Washington state, posted on the Tandem Food website.
Q: What are examples of ways to share environmental monitoring results to enhance a good edible safety culture?
Ellice: In the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods: Guidance for Industry Draft Guidance (2017), the FDA states that “a well-designed environmental monitoring program promotes knowledge and awareness of the environmental conditions that could result in product contamination and is a more effective program than product testing alone.” In other words, environmental monitoring programs and results can identify environmental conditions within a facility that could cause potential contamination. Publishing these findings, for example in the form of a case study or sharing the details of the practice, can enhance the food safety culture in the specific niche industry. For example, to borrow from the meat industry, Tyson Foods, Inc developed and shared environmental monitoring programs that are used by their peers, promoting a unified food safety culture, rather than competitive, guarded secrecy.
Q: Are the food safety requirements the same for retail and manufacturing?
Ellice: The food safety requirements are not exactly the same for retailers and manufacturers. The difference is inherent that retailers are working with finished product while manufacturers are working with raw ingredients and the manufacturing process to develop the finished product. Let’s take a closer look at cannabis regulation in Washington state. Chapter 314-55-104(12) states “Processors creating marijuana extracts must develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and a training plan prior to producing extracts for the marketplace.” Compare this to the requirements for retailers, 314-55-105(11) which states “A marijuana producer, processor or retailer licensed by the WSLCB must conduct the production, processing, storage, and sale of marijuana-infused products using sanitary practices.” While SOPs and GMPs are not explicitly mentioned for retailers as they are for manufacturers, sanitary practices could be documented as Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Proper storage practices can also be an overlapping food safety concern with respect to temperature control or pest management systems. Overall, food safety should remain a top priority in maintaining the integrity of the products throughout the supply chain.
Q: To your knowledge, has there been a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product?
Ellice: One possible cannabis-related death investigated in 2017 uncovered deadly pathogens in medical cannabis. However, to my knowledge, I have not seen a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product. There might be any number of reasons that this is so, for example, possibly because a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product might not have had a large impact to make headlines. Although, with the cannabis industry already misunderstood and a stigma so prevalent to even promote fake news, it is better to prevent an outbreak from ever occurring. One thing to note is that ultimately cannabis is just another ingredient in existing products, of course with special properties. So, the common food safety offenders are present: listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, among others. On the plant, cannabis food product manufacturers must minimize the risk of mycotoxins produced by molds, pest contamination, and pesticide contamination. For products that contain cannabis infusions or extractions as an ingredient, there is the possibility of the growth of Botulism toxin. Many of these pathogens can be minimized by appropriate heat treatment or maintenance of refrigeration, testing, and by practicing preventive measures. Arguably, the largest potential for pathogenic contamination is due to improper employee handling. To refer to what we discussed earlier, employee training is key, as well as proper enforcement. Having a strong food safety culture ensures that people have the knowledge of food safety risks and the knowledge of preventing outbreaks.
Q: Do any of the panelists know of any efforts to develop a food safety-oriented standard for the cannabis industry?
Ellice: Yes, Tandem Food LLC is positioned to consult on cGMP certification for manufacturing facilities in the cannabis industry. First, a gap assessment can be conducted to obtain useful actionable data for you, rather than be an intimidating experience. Working from the identified baseline, Tandem Food will work with you to create and implement all related documentation and programs, providing training as necessary. Overall, with the right commitment, cGMP certification can take 6-12 months.
The spectacular rise and crash of the Canadian cannabis stock market has been painful to watch, let alone to experience as an industry insider. The hype around the market has vanished and many investors are left disappointed. Large sustainable gains simply haven’t materialized as promised. The producers are clearly suffering. They have consistently been shedding value as they’ve been posting losses every quarter. Stock prices have plummeted along with consumer confidence. Attempts to reduce the cash bleeds through mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, restructures, fund raises, among others, have not resulted in any significant recovery. In short, the current model of a cannabis industry has failed.
How could it have been different? What should the industry have done differently? What makes the difference between failure and success? A recent article published in Nature (Volume 575) by Yin et al. titled “Quantifying the Dynamics of Failure Across Science, Startups and Security” analyzes the underlying principles of success. The article studies success rates of many groups after numerous attempts across three domains. One of the domains being analyzed are startup companies and their success in raising funds through many attempts at investment acquisition. The authors point out that the most important factor that determines success is not relentless trying but is actually learning after each attempt. Learning allows successful groups to accelerate their failures, making minute adjustments to their strategy with every attempt. Learning behavior is also seen early in the journey. This means that groups will show higher chances of success early on, if they learn from their mistakes.
If you want to succeed, you need to analyze the current state, test the future state, evaluate performance difference and implement the improved state.
This also needs to happen in the cannabis industry. Producers have been utilizing inefficient legacy systems for production. They have shackled themselves to these inefficient methods by becoming GMP-certified too early. Such certifications prevent them from experimenting with different designs that would enhance their process efficiency and product development. This inflexibility prevents them from improving. This means they are setting themselves up for ultimate failure. GMP is not generally wrong, as it ensures product safety and consistency. Although, at this early stage in the cannabis industry, we just don’t yet have the right processes to enshrine.
How can cannabis producers implement the above-mentioned research findings and learn from their current situation? In an ever-changing business environment, it is companies that are nimble, innovative and fast enough to continually refine themselves that end up succeeding. This agility allows them to match their products with the needs of their consumers and market dynamics. booking.com, a travel metasearch engine, is the prime example of this ethos because they carry out thousands of experiments per year. They have embraced failure through rapid experimentation of different offerings to gauge user feedback. Experimentation has allowed booking.com to learn faster than the competition and build a stronger business.
At CBDV, we put the need for iterative experimentation, failure and improvements to achieve breakthroughs at the core of our company. We pursue data to guide our decisions, not letting fear of momentary failure detract us from ultimate success. We continuously explore multiple facets of complex problems to come up with creative solutions.
A good example of how failure and rapid innovation guided us to success is our work on decarboxylation. We were confronted by the problem that the decarboxylation step of cannabis oil was inconsistent and unpredictable. Trying different reaction conditions did not yield a clear picture. We realized that the most important obstacle for improvements was the slow analysis by the HPLC. Therefore, we turned our attention to developing a fast analysis platform for decarboxylation. We found this in a desktop mid-IR instrument. With this instrument and our algorithm, we now could instantaneously track decarboxylation. We now hit another roadblock, a significant rate difference in decarboxylation between THCA and CBDA. We needed to understand the theoretical foundation of this effect to effectively optimize this reaction. So, we moved to tackle the problem from a different angle and employed computational chemistry to identify the origin of the rate difference. Understanding the steric effect on rate helped us focus on rapid, iterative experimentation. Now, with everything in place, we can control the decarboxylation at unrivaled speeds and to the highest precision.
If producers want to regain the trust of the market, they must embrace their failures and begin to learn. They should decrease their reliance on inefficient legacy production methods and experiment with new ones to find what is right for them. Experimentation brings new ways of production, innovative products and happier customers, which will result in higher profits. Producers should strive to implement experimentation into their corporate cultures. This can be done in collaboration with research companies like CBDV or through development of inhouse ‘centers of excellence.’
The recent decision in Germany on the reclassification of CBD (kudos to the European Industrial Hemp Association) as something other than “novel” has now opened an interesting new discussion in Germany and by extension, Europe.
It basically means that hemp plants, if they are European in origin, can be grown (under the right regulatory structure starting with organic) and even extracted without ever being considered a “novel food.”
Look for (hopefully) similar discussions now across Europe and the UK where the Food Safety Authority is also examining similar policies.
What this ultimately means, however, is that the market is clearly opening on the CBD front, but only for products that make the grade.
What should the average producer or manufacturer from North America think about when setting up a supply chain for export?
Thanks to the new treaties in place between the United States, Canada and Europe right now, there are market openings in the cannabis industry in Europe. Starting with the fact that the cannabis bug has clearly hit the continent, but there is actually not enough regulated product to be found yet and just about anywhere.
This is keeping prices high right now, but do not expect that to last.
Regardless, pricing of imports will not be like anything you have experienced if your background is state or even national market in the U.S. or Canada. There are higher regulations in every direction in Europe. Understanding how to translate the same into equivalencies that do not bankrupt you, overprice your products, or worse, get you in trouble with authorities is a critical first step, and not one to be taken lightly.
Get professional guidance from the country you are hoping to export to, at minimum. And that includes the legal kind. Every step of the way, you have to be certified with, at minimum, federal if not at an international certification.
No matter what cannabinoid is in the mix, this is ultimately a plant-based product. All rules one would normally think about when talking about other food products (for starters) are in the room.
While it is far from “this easy” (although thanks to the USDA’s decision about hemp, not to mention the FDA update on its own deliberations, there are now federal standards), think about the problem this way: If you were the world’s best chocolate bar, or even tomato juice, how would you hit Europe right now?
They have tomatoes here, and unbelievably great chocolate already. What is it about your offering that can stand out? This is the million-dollar question. There are a few people and companies doing this right now, but it takes experience, and understanding the multiple regulatory guidelines involved. Once you figure that out, then you need to look at your supply chain, piece by piece and literally from the plant through end production for where you fit, and where you might not, into the regulatory discussion and market you hope to enter.
The Medical Discussion
There is now the possibility of exporting medical grade hemp and hemp extracts from the United States to Europe. However, everything must be GMP-certified to a medical standard, from organic production on up. This is an international standard, not an American one.
That qualification does not exist much in the cannabis industry in the United States (although ISO very much is) yet. Although it is dawning. On the Canadian side, there are plenty of companies in the discussion, because there is already a beaten path to export.
As the German cultivation bid proved, European certification, certainly is a high barrier to reach. Indeed, it is not only GMP certification in the room on the medical side but also rules about the import of all plant products.
From this perspective, it is also easier to import “finished” product rather than plant.
The Recreational Discussion
Before anyone gets too excited about recreational reform, the reality is that Europe is not going to step ahead of the UN (which has now pushed its next deliberation on the topic to the end of 2020). Yes, there are trials in a couple of places, but far from earth-shaking (recreational trials in the land of the coffee shop anyone?)
More interesting, of course, is what has just happened on the CBD side. But before American hemp farmers get too excited about this, they have hemp and farmers in Europe. And quite a few people have seen the light on this one already.
Sure New York state exports to Europe are probably in the offing, but so are hemp exports from the Southern states where the weather is warmer and the labor cheaper.
Certified labs, processing and extraction, and labelling are all in the mix. And every step must be documented as you go.
How to Proceed?
Whatever your crop or product is, take stock of the certifications you have now. If your plant was not organic, forget export anywhere. You are out of the international game.
However, with this taken care of, look at the certification requirements in Europe for extraction, processing and import of food and plant products and obtain production partners with the same – either in the US or abroad.
With luck, patience, skill and knowledge, yes, the doors are slowing opening, even to U.S.-based cannabis trade of the international kind.
Just don’t expect it to be easy, and leave lots of time for workarounds, pivots and even re-engineering at every point of the way.
The cannabis industry is on the road to legitimacy, no matter the bumps, globally. No matter what, and no matter what happens next, that is a good thing. Issues like supply chain transparency, privacy, consumer and patient safety, and of course energy and water use have long been in the room just about everywhere.
Cleantech Is Cannatech
The modern cannabis industry was birthed and given significant shape in deserts (Israel, California, Nevada). In California, as of 2014, producers were warned, yet again, that they could not avail themselves of federally overseen aquifers of groundwater. The legitimizing industry trucked in what it needed.
On the medical discussion, in Europe, in particular, such issues are now in the room. All medical cannabis must be grown indoors. No exceptions.
That means low energy, high efficiency production is on the rise, not the wane.
What Does GMP Mean?
The overall regulations and operating procedures that surround this discussion are known as “Good Manufacturing Practices,” or GMPs for short. But like all the best acronyms, what the standards are, who sets them, and where they are equivalent is still a shifting picture.
Further, GMPs, and even more particularly EU-GMPs, are specifically referred to this way to distinguish the medically bound product from other consumer protection regulations that include novel food.
That said, “GMP practices” differ widely from industry to industry. The idea behind them, however is to prevent harm from occurring to the user, including that the end product is free from contamination, and the packaging as well as manufacture has been well documented. Additional requirements include that personnel are properly trained.
And while the practice, at the pointed end of enforcement can get nerdy, detail-oriented and specific, that is precisely the point. That is also why you might catch another variant of this acronym (cGMP – or current GMP guidelines), to denote a world that is changing fast.
Contamination of the supply chain if not the carbon impact of the same, for all food and plant-based pharmaceutical products is a 21st century problem that is exploding on the scene as fast as the planet warms and cannabis legalizes.
What Do GMP Guidelines Include?
These are guidelines, not steps. As a result, from a bird’s eye view, all international and sovereign national GMP standards include a few basic principles no matter how much they may differ in the weeds. Namely:
That manufacturing processes are clean, controlled and processes are verifiable and repeatable. Changes to any and all must also be clearly documented.
Record keeping, accurate accounting (of product and on the financial side) must be kept, including complete batch history through manufacture and distribution to the end user. Audits are a way of life.
Recall procedures must be in effect.
All complaints about products must be examined.
The World Health Organization (WHO) version of GMP is what’s used by pharmaceutical regulators worldwide. The European Union’s EU-GMP standards are seen as roughly equivalent, as are those now practiced in the U.S. by the FDA. That does not mean that confusion does not reign as standards are changing (across Europe, for example, between individual countries, there is still disagreement). However similar GMPs are used in countries including Australia, Canada, Japan, and Singapore. The UK, of course, is slightly different than anyone else but still has regulations that are roughly equivalent and referred to as “The Orange Guide” (in honor of the color of the book’s cover).
You Know It When You See It
Well, not quite. Beyond GMP, there are of course, other classifications for the kind of plant or product being made, manufactured and distributed. And here, along with international treaties about who can trade with whom, also impact this discussion.
It is not correct, however, for example, to claim that what are known as GACP guidelines (good agricultural and collection practices) are equivalent to GMP. Bio, or pesticide free production (in other words) is just one of many steps in meeting much higher standards now in the room for medically bound cannabis.
What Is GMP “Like”?
All industries have “best practices.” For example, the building industry has all sorts of codes and guidelines. However, in addition to this, about a decade ago, LEED (or green building) certification began to be implemented widely. In the U.S., in particular, there was much discussion about how honest such certifications actually were. The term “greenwashing” was frequently used to describe practices that were sold as energy efficient, but in the end cost more, environmentally and otherwise, than they should.
Like LEED, GMP is not a prescribed set of steps but rather best practice guidelines and regulations meant to guide industries on producing safe products – from seed to sale.
How Does This Differ From WHO Guidelines on GACP for Medicinal Plants?
The World Health Organization’s GACP guidelines are highly controversial in this context, especially when it comes to cannabis. Especially because they refer specifically to plants used as medicine that are “grown in the wild.” I.e. not greenhouse. How these guidelines are interpreted by different countries, however, within the context of the interpretation of “medical cannabis” not to mention pharmaceutical GMPs, are very different.
GACP guidelines, in other words, are sometimes the first step in qualification – but certification under the same (starting with outdoor grown crops produced without pesticides for example) is not likely to pass European medical standards any time soon.
Cannabis businesses have become a driving force for economic growth in the United States. We’ve all heard the statistics. In 2018, the industry accounted for approximately $10.4 billion in revenue and is slated to grow to $21 billion by 2021.
But with growth comes pressure to produce more, enhance quality and optimize operations. However, managing a cannabis business without modern, capable tools can hinder growth and leave opportunities on the table. That’s why fast-growing cannabis businesses are looking to the proven benefits of a true cloud Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform to help manage production, provide insights and improve business operations. When we add in the complexity and ever-changing nature of regulation, the need for a robust operational system becomes even more critical.
David Stephans will be speaking during CIJ’s October 9th webinar, “Driving Strategic Advantage for your Cannabusiness through Process Efficiency, Quality & Compliance” Click here to learn more and register for free.Cannabis business leaders may want to develop their own “playbook” to differentiate themselves in the market. But before they start to engineer their forward-thinking approach, they should start with a cloud ERP as their foundation. This can help with everything from the most basic of needs to more sophisticated strategies. In this article, we’ll review some key cannabis business goals and tactics, and how ERP can help lay the groundwork for success.
Drive growth and expansion.
Business growth often translates into operational expansion, meaning more facilities, staff and compliance requirements to manage. A cloud ERP supports these functions, including the launch of new products, expanding pricing schedules and increasing production to meet demand. Having the ability to track and manage growth is crucial, and a cloud ERP can provide the real-time reporting and dashboards for visibility across the entire business. This includes not just operational visibility, but also a look into a company’s sales, finances and supply chain.
Foster exemplary customer experience.
Cannabis companies need to streamline processes from the moment an order is placed to when it arrives at the customer’s door. In the mind of consumers, cannabis businesses compete against the likes of Amazon. They must be able to provide a similar experience and level of service, with customers receiving orders in a couple of business days. Cloud ERP can help automate processes. And when things go wrong, it can also help with resolution, especially when it’s paired with a customer relationship management (CRM) system on the same cloud platform. For the B2B market, cloud ERP empowers account management to review past orders to better meet future customer needs.
Stay a step ahead of the game.
In the industry, change is a constant. The future will likely bring about shifts in products, regulations and suppliers. A cloud ERP can modify workflows, controls and process approvals on the fly, so companies can adapt to new requirements. It offers security against emerging risks and easy integration with other systems cannabusinesses may need. An advanced cloud ERP will also provide cutting-edge capabilities, such as AI insights and data-capture from Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices.
Ensure quality product for raving fans and avoid flags on the field through airtight compliance.
Many cannabis companies are passionate about delivering the highest-quality cannabis products. Auditability is key to both quality and compliance. Complete traceability, with lot and serial number tracking, will record comprehensive audit trails from seed to sale. A cloud ERP will incorporate RFID tags down to the plant, lot and product levels to assist in this process. As cannabis goods move through their lifecycle, the cloud ERP will append appropriate tracking to purchasing receipts, inventory as it moves between locations, products as they’re packaged and sales orders as they’re fulfilled.
As a heavily regulated industry, cannabis business is also subject to burdensome compliance standards. A cloud ERP can support the rigorous testing that’s required to assure potency and safety. It easily facilitates Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Production Practices (GPP), which ensures products are consistently produced according to quality standards. Many regulatory agencies require digital reporting; cloud ERP can facilitate this requirement through integration with Metrc, Health Canada and the FDA. Compliance can be a costly endeavor, and this type integration saves time, money, and effort.
As you can see, a cloud ERP helps efficiently balance compliance and regulatory requirements, with operational efficiency and customer service – key strategies in any cannabusiness playbook.
Tilray just did something very interesting. In addition to announcing that it was shipping product to German distributor Cannamedical via its Portuguese facility, it also announced that it had begun outdoor cultivation.
Even more intriguing: the company is claiming that somehow, via its proprietary technology (apparently), this kind of crop will be legit for distribution within the EU medical system.
There is only one problem with this. Outdoor growing does not sound remotely GMP-certified.
Here is the next bit of exciting news. Tilray, apparently, is not the only large Canadian cannabis company now operating in Europe that appears to be trying to get around GMP certifications for medical market penetration. Or appear oblivious to the distinctions in the international (and certainly European market).
And things are a bit smelly on that front, not only in Denmark post CannTrust, but in truth even in Germany, the supposed “Fort Knox” of regulatory consumer and pharmaceutical standards.
In fact, at least according to insiders, there is apparently quite a bit of gray market product sloshing around in the Teutonic medical market. Even though so far, at least not publicly punished for the same, nobody has been caught. Or at least publically reprimanded.
And who is on the hot seat at least according to most of the licensed if not just pre-licensed indie producers and distributors who were contacted for this story? Sure, there are dark horse “start-up” indie violators, but they are not the only problem. Many who talked to CIJ named big public Canadian companies too. And potentially Bedrocan beyond that.
Who Is Who And What Is What?
Part of the problem, beyond any kind of deliberate flouting of regulations on the part of many companies who are at least trying to understand them, is that global standards are different. “GMP certifications” of every country, even within a region like Europe, are in fact, not uniform. That is why, for example, the new EU-US MRA agreement had to be signed first regionally and then on a state-by-state level across the EU.
Beyond Germany of course, there are other problems that are coming to the fore.In the medical cannabis space, in particular, right now, that is causing problems simply because many with pharma experience are not hip to the many risks in the cannabis industry itself. On the Canadian, Australian and American side, there is also a lot of bad advice, in particular, coming from consultants who should know better.
To be properly EU and German GMP-certified, one of the required steps is to have German inspectors walk your production floor. It is also not good enough to have “pesticide-free” or national organic certification at the crop cultivation site, and add GMP cert at time of “processing.” That piece of misadvise has been showing up not only in Canada, but Australia too. And creates a nasty reality if not expensive retooling upon entering the legitimate market in Europe, for starters.
These Issues Affect Everyone In The Industry
In an environment where ex-im is the name of the game, and even the big guys are short of product, compliance is getting granular as smaller players step up to the plate – and many if not most hopeful Canadian producers (in particular) now looking to Europe for sales are not (yet) up to speed.
A big piece of the blame also lies in the lack of proper administration at the federal and state level too – even auf Deutschland. To get a distribution license, a company must actually get three licenses, although there are plenty in the market right now who begin to describe themselves as “distributors” with less than the required certs.
The lack of coordination and communication, including which certs to accept as equivalent and from where is creating a market where those who know how to game the system are.
For example, several people who contacted CIJ, claimed that uncertified product was making its way into Germany via Central and Latin America, through Canada, picking up “GMP cert” along the way. In other words, not actually GMP-certified but labelled fraudulently to make it appear that way.
The same claims were also made by those with on-the-ground industry knowledge in South Africa (Lesotho).
Beyond Germany of course, there are other problems that are coming to the fore. As CIJ recently learned, a firm authorized by the Dutch government to provide cannabis packaging, including for exports, was not GMP certified until July 2019 – meaning that all product they shipped internationally even within Europe before that date potentially has labelling issues. Cue domestic importers. If not regulators.
Grey Market Product Is Making Its Way In Through Official Channels
For those who are taking the time to actually get through the legal registration and licensing process, it is infuriating to see others who are apparently fairly flagrantly buying market position but are in no position to fulfil such obligations. It is even more infuriating for those who intend to meet the requirements of the regulations to realize that the vast amounts spent in consulting fees was actually money paid for inaccurate information.
And the only way ultimately the industry can combat that, is by standing up, as an industry, to face and address the problem.German distributors are so aware of the problem that they are starting to offer gap analysis and specific consulting services to help their import partners actually get compliant.
Government agencies also might be aware of the problems, but they have been reluctant to talk about the same. CIJ contacted both BfArM and the local Länderauthorities to ask about the outdoor grow in Portugal and the lack of GMP cert for a Dutch packager. After multiple run-arounds, including sending this reporter on a wild rabbit chase of federal and state agencies (who all directed us back to BfArm) and an implication by the press officer at BfArM that the foreign press was not used to talking to multiple sources, CIJ was redirected back to state authorities with a few more instructions on which bureau to contact. The state bureau (in Berlin) did not return comments to questions asked by email.
Here is the bottom line that CannTrust has helped expose this summer: the entire global cannabis industry is trying hard to legitimize. Not every company is shady, and there are many who are entering it now who are playing by the rules. But those who are hoping to exploit loopholes (including “name” if not “public” companies) are also clearly in the room.
And the only way ultimately the industry can combat that, is by standing up, as an industry, to face and address the problem.
Editors Note: This is a developing story. CIJ has been contacted by the Dutch Cannabis Agency as it investigates what appears to be an intra-government debate over qualification of EU-GMP cert, acceptance of audit documents and other matters within European countries that appear to have caused much of this confusion with regards to Bedrocan and its packager Fagron. Many reputable, licensed sources within the industry spoke to us on deep background, out of concern that they too would be held liable. That said, so far, nobody can explain why the only licensed Dutch packager, was issued a new EU GMP cert document on July 9, 2019, the same day that Danish authorities halted CannTrust product entering Denmark. That is a government decision. Further it is also still unclear why rival cannabis companies would attempt to contact the cannabis media with a certain (and misguided) spin on this situation.
Sanitation is not just sweeping the floors and wiping down the table – sanitation has a wide-ranging function in a cannabis food manufacturing facility. For example, sanitation covers the employees (and unwanted pests), food-contact equipment (and non-food-contact equipment), trash disposal (including sewage), and more. Ultimately, sanitation systems maintain a clean environment to prevent foodborne illness from affecting human health. Fortunately, there are resources and tools to ease into establishing a robust sanitation program.
Overall, the main goal of sanitation is to produce safe food, to keep consumers healthy and safe from foodborne illness. With the cannabis industry growing and gaining legalization, 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, and all consumers, need and deserve safe cannabis products every experience.
1) General maintenance of the facilities: The buildings and fixtures of the food manufacturing facility cover a lot of ground – hiring a maintenance team will divide the responsibility, ensuring the entire facility can be maintained in a clean and sanitary condition. Furthermore, a team can build out a tool like a preventative maintenance program to restrict issues from ever becoming issues.
2) Control of the chemicals used for cleaning and sanitizing: Not all chemicals are equal – select the appropriate cleaning and sanitizing chemicals from reputable suppliers. Obtain the right knowledge and training on proper use, storage, and proper protective equipment (PPE). This ensures the safe and effective application of the chemicals in minimizing the risk of foodborne illness.
3) Pest control: Understand the environment within the facility and outside the facility. This will aid in identifying the most common or likely pests, in order to focus the pest control efforts. Keep in mind that internal pest management programs can be just as successful as hiring external pest control services.
4) Procedures for sanitation of both food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces: Developing sanitation standard operating procedures (SSOPs) provides guidance to employees on appropriate cleaning and sanitizing practices, to balance effective and efficient operations. A master sanitation schedule can control the frequency of indicated sanitation procedures.
5) Storage and handling of cleaned portable equipment and utensils: Cross contamination in storage can be minimized with tools such as controlled traffic flow, signage, training, color coding, and more.
6) Water supply, plumbing, and sewage disposal: Routine inspections of plumbing, floor drainage, and sewage systems prevent unintended water flow and damage.
7) Toilet facilities: Clearly defining standards for the toilet facilities and setting accountability to everyone who uses them will ensure that the toilet facilities are not a source of contamination for the food products.
8) Hand-washing facilities: Good manufacturing practices (GMPs) include proper hand washing and proper hand washing starts with suitable hand-washing facilities. For example, frequent checks on running water, hand soap, and single use towels ensure that all hands are clean and ready to produce safe food.
9) Trash disposal: While trash can be a source of cross contamination, trash can also attract and harbor pests. Scheduling regular trash disposal and controlling traffic flow of waste are two ways to minimize the risk of cross contamination from trash.
Even after meeting these requirements, sanitation programs can be more sophisticated. An example is to institute an environmental monitoring program to verify and validate that the sanitation program is effective. Another example is in identifying and measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) within the sanitation program that can improve not just the sanitation processes, but the operations as a whole. Principally, sanitation is cleanliness on the most basic level, but waste management can encompass sanitation and grow into a larger discussion on sustainability. All in all, sanitation programs must reshape and evolve alongside the company growth.
Sanitation is interwoven throughout the food manufacturing process; sanitation is not a single task to be carried out by a sole individual. As such, it is beneficial to incorporate sanitation practices into cannabis food manufacturing processes from the beginning. Protect your brand from product rework or recalls and, most importantly, protect your consumers from foodborne illness, by practicing proper sanitation.
If you have wondered over the past several years, why the big Canadian companies (in particular) are following the global strategy they are, there is actually a fairly simple answer: Newly implementing trade agreements, particularly between Europe and North America.
In fact, look at the schedule of the MRA agreements signed between the U.S. and individual EU countries over the last several years, and it also looks like a map of the countries that have not only legalized at least medical cannabis, but where the big Canadian companies (in particular) have begun to establish operations outside of their home country.
But what is going on is actually more than just CETA-related and also will affect cannabis firms south of the Canadian-U.S. border.
All of these swirling currents are also why the most recent MRA to come into full force in July this year, between the U.S. and Europe, is so interesting from the cannabis perspective. Even before federal reform in the U.S. If this sounds like a confusing disconnect, read on.
What Are MRAs?
MRAs are actually a form of highly specialized trade agreement that allow trading countries to be certain that the pharmaceuticals they purchase from abroad are equivalent to what is produced at home. This includes not only ingredients but processing procedures, production plant hygiene, testing, labeling and more.
When it comes to the EU-US MRA agreement, this means that individual states of the EU can now recognize the American Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) as an effective federal regulator of American pharmaceutical production that is equal to the procedures in Europe. US GMP standards, in other words, will be recognized as equal to those of EU states.
This will now also, by definition, include GMP-certified medical cannabis formulations.
What is so intriguing, however, is how this development will actually place certain American (and Canadian) manufacturers in a first place position to import cannabis into Europe ahead of the rest of the American cannabis industry.
What Are Mutual Recognition Agreements All About?
One of the most important quality and consumer safety aspects of establishing a clean supply chain is tied up in the concept of GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices). These are procedures, established by compliant producers of pharmaceuticals, to ensure seed (or source) to sale reliability of the medication they make. In the cannabis industry, particularly in the advent of Canadian-European transatlantic trade in cannabis, this has been the first high hurdle to accept and integrate on the Canadian side.
If European countries recognize a country’s GMP certifications are equivalent to its own, in other words, and cannabis is legal for export, a country can enter the international cannabis market without facing bans, in-country inspections and the like. In the interim, imported products still have to be batch tested until the agreements are fully accepted and operational.
Israel, for example, already had an MRA with the EU, and medical cannabis is legal in the country. However, Israel was prevented from selling cannabis abroad until a legislative change domestically, passed on Christmas Day.
That is why the MRA agreement between the US and EU with Canadian companies in the middle also put both Israeli and U.S. firms at an extreme disadvantage in comparison. Both in entering the market in the first place, and of course associated discussions, like the German tender bid. That is now changing- and as of this year.
A Specialized Map Of Global Medical Cannabis Exporters
Ironically, what the new US-EU MRA could also well do is create a channel for pharmaceutical cannabis from the United States to Europe (certainly on the hemp and CBD front) just as Israel is expected to enter the international cannabis export industry (later this summer or fall). It could well be also, particularly given the Trump Administration’s tendency to want to not only “put America first” if not pull off “a better deal” in general and about everything, that this is why President Trump offered the delay to Israel’s president Benjamin Netanyahu in the first place.
Regardless of the international individual developments and subtleties however, what is very clear that from the time the first bid stalled in Germany in the summer of 2017 until now, the U.S.-EU MRA has been in the room even if not named specifically as a driver.
For example, the FDA confirmed the capability of Poland and Slovenia to carry out GMP inspections in February of 2019. It was only last fall that Aurora pulled off its licensing news in the former (on the same day licensing reform was announced by the government). Denmark was recognized in November of last year during the first year of its “medical cannabis pilot progam.” Greece was recognized in March 2018. Italy, Malta, Spain and the UK came online in November of 2017.
Overlay this timetable with a map of cannabis reform (and beyond that, cannabis production) and the logic starts to look very clear.
The upshot, in other words, is that while cannabis still may be “stigmatized” if not still “illegal” in many parts of the world, more generalized, newly negotiated and implementing, specialized global trade agreements between the US, Europe and Canada in particular have been driving the development of certain segments of the cannabis industry globally and since about 2013.
The Biggest News?
As of this year, as a result, expect at least from the GMP-certified front at least, that such international trade will also include medical cannabis from the U.S.
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.
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