As the cannabis market matures and the value chain becomes modernized, it’s important to address product safety in a comprehensive way. In other areas of manufacturing, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) has been the standard for reducing hazards both for employees and for the products themselves. A Critical Control Point (CCP) is any spot from conception to consumption where a loss of control can potentially result in risk (Unnevehr, 1996). In the food realm, HACCP has been used to drive quality enhancements since the 1980s (Cichy, 1982).
In a nutshell, HACCP seeks to help identify where a problem may enter a product or environment and how that problem may be addressed before it escalates. In cannabis, these hazards include many of the same problems that food products have: specifically molds, yeasts, and pathogenic bacteria (Listeria, E. coli, etc.). While the current industry standard is to test products at the end stage for these contaminants, this late-stage pass/fail regimen leads to huge lots of destroyed product and a risk for consumer distrust (Yamashiro, 2019). HACCP, therefore, should be applied at every stage of the production process.
Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM) is a tool that can be used to identify CCPs in a cannabis cultivation or processing facility. The main goal of a PEM program is to find a contaminant before it reaches a surface that touches the product or the product itself. PEM is conducted using a pre-moistened swab or a sponge to collect a sample from the cannabis environment. The swab can then be sent to a lab for microbial testing. Keys to an effective PEM are:
1. Start with a broad stroke – When the FDA comes to a facility suspected of producing pathogen-laced food products, they conduct what is known as a Swab-a-thon. A Swab-a-thon is a top to bottom collection of samples, usually totaling 100 or more. Similarly, preemptively swabbing should be the first step in any PEM—swab everything to see what exists as a baseline.
2. Map your scene – identify on a map of your facility the following:
Flow of air and people (where do air and people enter and where do they go?
Identifying the above zones will help deepen your understanding of where contaminants may come into contact with cannabis and how they may migrate from a Non-CCS to a CCS.
3. Plan and execute:
Based on the results of mapping, and Swab-a-thon, identify where and when you will be collecting samples on a consistent and repeatable basis. Emphasis should be placed on areas that are deemed a risk based on 1) and 2). Samples should be collected at random in all zones to ensure comprehensive screening.
4. Remediate and modify:
If you get a positive result during PEM, don’t panic—pathogens are ubiquitous.
Remediate any trouble spots with deep cleaning, remediation devices or other protocols.
Re-test areas that were positive for pathogens to ensure remediation is successful.
Revisit and modify the plan at least once a year and each time a new piece of equipment is added or production flow is otherwise changed.
The steps above are a good starting point for a grower or processor to begin a PEM. Remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to safety; each facility has its own unique set of hazards and control points.
Comprehensive guides for PEM can be found at the links below, many of the concepts can be applied to cannabis production.
To say that there has been explosive growth in the cannabis edibles market is an understatement. In the next 5 years, edibles are expected to become a $5.3 billion industry according to the Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research firm. Skyrocketing demand for cannabis infusion in food and beverage products, both recreational and medical, has prompted concern for the health and safety of consumers due to the lack of federal legality and regulatory guidelines for these products. Edibles consumers assume the same level of safety and quality present in other food and beverage products in the market. Progressive cannabis operations are opting to follow current food safety guidelines to mitigate hazards despite not being legally required to do so. Utilizing these guidelines, as well as incorporating an industry-specific ERP solutionto automate processes, enables cannabis businesses to provide quality, consistent products and establish standards to support the eventuality of federal cannabis legalization.
Edibles consumption has grown not only in a recreational capacity but also for medicinal use to treat chronic pain, relieve epilepsy symptoms, decrease nausea, combat anxiety and other health issues. Cannabidiol (CBD) infused products take many forms including candies, baked goods, chocolate, oils, sprays, beer, soda, tea and coffee. Their popularity is partly due to their more socially acceptable use, creating an appeal to a wider audience. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for overseeing food and beverage safety for products sold in the United States, their regulations are not enforced in the cannabis-infused marketplace. Without federal regulatory standards, there exist inherent food safety concerns that create risks to consumers. The average cannabis edibles customer is likely unaware of the “consume at your own risk” nature of the products.
There are many consequences of not addressing food safety hazards, as the possibility of food-borne illnesses resulting from unsafe and unsanitary manufacturing facilitieshave become increasingly likely in an unregulated market. In addition to these concerns, problems particular to cannabisgrowing and harvesting practices are also possible. Aflatoxins (mold carcinogens) on the cannabis bud, pesticide residue on plants, pest contamination, improper employee handling and training and inaccurate levels of CBD all contribute to the risk of outbreaks, hefty fines, recalls or business closure. To mitigate the risk of exposure, it is recommended that edible manufacturers employ a proactive approach of observing proper food safety standards that encompass the growing, manufacturing, packaging, handling, storing and selling of products. With a focus on safety, cannabis edible manufacturers utilizing an ERP solution and vendor with experience in food safety management will reap the benefits that food and beverage businesses have experienced for decades.
Following established food safety protocols and guidelines of the food and beverage and dietary supplement industry, allows manufacturers of cannabis-infused edibles to implement a proactive approach by focusing on safety and reducing the risk to their operations. Food and beverage manufacturing best practices include: maintaining supplier list, quality control testing, sanitary handling of consumables, maintaining clean facilities and mitigating cross-contamination. Successful food and beverage manufacturers also incorporate a food safety team, preventative controls, and a food safety plan (FSP) including a detailed recall plan into their safety initiatives.
Establishing and maintaining a supplier list with approved quality ingredients is an essential building block for reducing food safety hazards and can be easily maintained within an ERP. Documentation of vendor information and recording of stringent testing results ensures that specific quality standards are met. Conducting extensive research regarding the source of the ingredients for use in cannabis edibles allows companies to confirm that raw ingredients were processed in a safe environment. The importance of supply chain visibility cannot be understated, as suppliers are in control of potential hazards. Quality processes and regularly performed testing is automated through the workflow of an ERP solution in the manufacturing facility – enabling noncompliant raw materials to be quarantined and removed from production. The ERP solution allows for management of critical control points to catch non-compliance issues and set-up of alternate suppliers in case of supplier-related issues. Maintaining approved supplier lists is an industry best practice that provides current and accurate information in the event of possible consumer adverse reactions.
Following current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) should underlie efforts to address food safety concerns in the cannabis edibles industry. An ERP solution assists with documenting these quality initiatives to ensure the safe and sanitary manufacturing, storage and packaging of food for human consumption. This includes evaluating equipment status, establishing cleaning and sanitation procedures and eliminating allergen cross-contamination. Employee training is conducted and documentation maintained in the ERP solution to ensure hygienic procedures, allergen awareness, illness reporting and required food or cannabis handling certifications.
Cannabis businesses can benefit from establishing a food safety team tasked with developing a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan to provide effective procedures and protect consumers from the hazards inherent in edible cannabis products – including biological, chemical and physical dangers. Automating processes within an ERP solution prevents and controls hazards before food safety is compromised. Since HACCP plans have historically been used by food and beverage manufacturers to ensure a safe product for the consumer, cannabis edibles manufacturers can apply the lessons from these food safety protocols and procedures in their initiatives.By utilizing food safety best practices partnered with an ERP solution, cannabis businesses can avoid the negative consequences resulting from failure to address food safety hazards in manufacturing, storage and packaging.
A comprehensive FSP, as required by the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), identifies food safety hazards and guides the development of a company-specific, validated plan. This plan documents processes throughout the manufacturing, processing, packaging and storage stages of the operation. ERP software provides real-time, forward and backward lot traceability from seed-to-sale with the ability to track materials, document recipes and accurately label products. This detailed level of traceability provides an automated system that implements and documents food safety policies throughout the manufacturing process. With a trained Preventative Control Qualified Individual (PCQI) implementing the FSP, preventative controls, recall plans and employee training records are maintained in an integrated system.
The cannabis market’s tremendous growth has driven edibles manufacturers to follow the same guidelines as mainstream food and beverage companies to ensure safety is afforded equally to consumers of cannabis edibles. By utilizing food safety best practices partnered with an ERP solution, cannabis businesses can avoid the negative consequences resulting from failure to address food safety hazards in manufacturing, storage and packaging. At the end of the day, it’s up to cannabis manufacturers to be proactive in ensuring cannabis edibles are safe to consume until regulations are mandated.
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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