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Fungal Monitoring: An Upstream Approach to Testing Requirements

By Bernie Lorenz, PhD
1 Comment

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.

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

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.

Best practices include quality control protocols while 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.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.


References

  1. ASTM D8219-2019: Standard Guide for Cleaning and Disinfection at a Cannabis Cultivation Center (B. Lorenz): http://www.astm.org/cgi-bin/resolver.cgi?D8219-19
  2. Mycotoxin, Aspergillus: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mycotoxins
  3. State of California Cannabis Regulations: https://cannabis.ca.gov/cannabis-regulations/
  4. Asexual Sporulation in Aspergillus nidulans (Thomas H. Adams,* Jenny K. Wieser, and Jae-Hyuk Yu):  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7eb1/05e73d77ef251f44a2ae91d0595e85c3445e.pdf?_ga=2.38699363.1960083875.1568395121-721294556.1562683339
  5. 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.
  6. Zefon Air O Cell Cassettes: https://www.zefon.com/iaq-sampling-cassettes
Cannabusiness Sustainability

Environmental Sustainability in Cultivation: Part 1

By Carl Silverberg
4 Comments

Core values often get wrapped into buzzwords such as sustainability, locally sourced and organic. In the first part of a series of four articles exploring greenhouses and the environment, we’re going to take a look at indoor vs. outdoor farming in terms of resource management.

Full disclosure; I love the fact that I can eat fresh blueberries in February when my bushes outside are just sticks. Is there a better way to do it than trucking the berries from the farm to a distribution plant to the airport, where they’re flown from the airport to a distribution center, to the grocery store and finally to my kitchen table? That’s a lot of trucking and a lot of energy being wasted for my $3.99 pint of blueberries.The largest generation in the history of the country is demanding more locally grown, sustainable and organic food. 

If those same blueberries were grown at a local greenhouse then trucked from the greenhouse directly to the grocery store, that would save diesel fuel and a lot of carbon emissions. People who can only afford to live near a highway, a port or an airport don’t need to ask a pulmonary specialist why their family has a higher rate of COPD than a family who lives on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs.

Fact: 55% of vegetables in the U.S. are grown under cover. The same energy saving principles apply to indoor cannabis and the reasons are consumer driven and producer driven. The largest generation in the history of the country is demanding more locally grown, sustainable and organic food. They want it for themselves and they want it for their kids.

The rapid proliferation of greenhouses over the past ten years is no coincidence. Millennials are forcing changes: organic fruit and vegetables now account for almost 15% of the produce market. A CNN poll last month revealed that 8 of 10 of registered Democrats listed climate change as a “very important” priority for presidential candidates. The issue is not party I.D.; the issue is that a large chunk of Americans are saying they’re worried about the direct and indirect impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding and wildfires.

So how does the consumer side tie into the cannabis industry? Consumers like doing business with companies who share their values. The hard part is balancing consumer values with investor values, which is why many indoor growers are turning to cultivation management platforms to help them satisfy both constituencies. They get the efficiency and they get to show their customers that they are good stewards of their environment. The goal is to catch things before it’s too late to save the plants. If you do that, you save the labor it costs to fix the problem, the labor and the expense of throwing away plants and you reduce pesticide and chemical usage. When that happens, your greenhouse makes more money and shows your customers you care about their values.

The indoor change is happening rapidly because people realize that technology is driving increased revenue while core consumer values are demanding less water waste, fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.Let’s add some more facts to the indoor-outdoor argument. According to an NCBI study of lettuce growing, “hydroponic lettuce production had an estimated water demand of 20 liters/kg, while conventional lettuce production had an estimated water demand of 250 liters/kg.”  Even if the ratio is only 10:1, that’s a huge impact on a precious resource.

Looking at the pesticide issue, people often forget about the direct impact on people who farm. “Rates in the agricultural industry are the highest of any industrial sector and pesticide-related skin conditions represent between 15 and 25% of pesticide illness reports,” a 2016 article in The Journal of Cogent Medicine states. Given the recent reports about the chemicals in Roundup, do we even need to continue the conversation and talk about the effects of fertilizer?

I’ll finish up with a quote from a former grower. “The estimates I saw were in the range of between 25%-40% of produce being lost with outdoor farming while most greenhouse growers operate with a 10% loss ratio.”

The indoor change is happening rapidly because people realize that technology is driving increased revenue while core consumer values are demanding less water waste, fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Lastly, most Americans simply have a moral aversion to seeing farms throw away food when so many other people are lined up at food banks.

Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know

By Parastoo Yaghmaee, PhD
2 Comments

Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.


Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.

The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.

Yeast & Mold

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

Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.

Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.

Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.

 What is TYMC?

TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.

Why is TYMC Measured?

TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators. 

Aspergillus species niger
Photo: Carlos de Paz, Flickr

The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.

Aspergillus flavus on culture.
Photo: Iqbal Osman, Flickr

Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4

Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11

For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.

References:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Complete%20Retail%20Marijuana%20Rules%20as%20of%20April%2014%202017.pdf
  2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-27/
  3. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/11791
  4. Kagen SL, Kurup VP, Sohnle PG, Fink JN. 1983. Marijuana smoking and fungal sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 71(4): 389-393.
  5. Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
  6. Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
  7. Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
  8. Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
  9. Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
  10. McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
  11. Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
  12. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-102

Digipath Expands To California

By Aaron G. Biros
1 Comment

In July, we sat down with the folks at Digipath, Inc. when they received their testing license in Nevada for the adult use market. In that conversation, they mentioned they were looking to expand into California.

According to a press release published September 25th, DigiPath, Inc. has entered a joint venture to establish their first cannabis-testing lab in California. They will be working with Don Ashley, an experienced real estate developer and cannabis entrepreneur, to launch Humboldt Botanical, LLC, conducting business under the name “Digipath Botanical Testing”.

Ashley says they expect to be fully operational by Q1 of 2018. “We expect to break ground on this project in the next few weeks and hope to be operational in early Q1 2018 just after the state-wide adult-use market is expected to launch, as we have already obtained approval from the local planning authorities for the entire complex,” says Ashley.

Todd Denkin, founder and president of Digipath

Todd Denkin, president of Digipath, is optimistic for California’s market and the coming regulations. “The state of California is estimated to be the single largest cannabis market in the U.S. Adult-use cannabis legislation was approved by California residents last November, and we expect these new regulations to be implemented in 2018,” says Denkin. “The good news for the industry is that the requirements for cannabis testing will be significant, and we are excited to partner with Don and his team to pursue this opportunity in Humboldt County.”

Ashley is contributing roughly $2 million to build and equip the lab with instrumentation, while Digipath Labs will manage and supervise operations at the lab. According to the press release, Digipath will provide a non-exclusive license to use its intellectual property for the operation of the lab. Digipath Labs will retain rights over all the scientific data generated in the lab.

Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath

According to Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath, that data will be put to good use. “Digipath Labs has developed an algorithm for use in strain authentication based largely on terpene profiling from our testing lab in Nevada and we are eager to further test our hypothesis with an expanded dataset from cannabis grown in Northern California,” says Orser.

While testing labs are primarily seen as safeguards for public health and safety, using data to correctly identify strains is a relatively new concept. “Digipath Labs is all about public health and safety through testing for adulterants,” says Orser. “Another component to quality is having confidence in product authenticity at the dispensary level. Not only is the consumer buying quality assured products but truth in advertising when it comes to strain nomenclature.”

Denkin says they were proactive in working toward getting the license early on. “Our partners have been dealing with the local regulators while we have been providing the proper SOP’s for the local government in order to receive the proper licensure in the area,” says Denkin. Taking their experience from Nevada to California, Orser says they have been asked to present to the California Toxicology Association on their experience with cannabis testing in the highly regulated marketplace of Nevada.

The laboratory in Humboldt is going to be part of a “cannabis industrial park,” alongside an R&D facility, oils/concentrate manufacturing center, health and wellness center, distribution and processing facility, tissue culture nursery, hemp clothing outlet, and coffee bistro, according to the press release.

Looking forward to growing their business, Denkin says they hope to launch a lab in Southern California. “We do expect to have a larger footprint in California because of the size of the market and are looking for locations in Southern California as well,” says Denkin. When asked about any new plans to expand elsewhere, Denkin says they’ll let us know. “We are continuing with our business plan and actively seeking the right mergers and acquisitions. Stay tuned.”