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Unnecessary Obstacles for the Canadian Edibles Market

By Steven Burton
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The edible cannabis market in Canada is still green. Delayed by a year from the legalization of dried flower, the edibles and extracts market poses significant opportunities for manufacturers. Edibles and extracts typically have higher profit margins than dried flower (“value-added” products) and consumer demand appears to be high and rising. So, what is causing trouble for cannabis companies trying to break into edibles and extracts? Below are four observations on the market potential of edibles in Canada.

Canada’s Edibles Market: The Numbers

In 2020, Canada – the largest national market in the world for cannabis products – grew more than 60%, largely as a result of the introduction of new products introduced in late 2019, often called “Cannabis 2.0,” which allowed the sale of derivative products like edibles. Deloitte estimates that the Canadian market for edibles and alternative cannabis products is worth $2.7 billion, with about half of that amount taken up by edibles and the rest distributed amongst cannabis-infused beverages, topicals, concentrates, tinctures and capsules. More recently, BDSA forecasts the size of the Canadian edibles market to triple in size by 2025 to about 8% of the total cannabis dollar sales.

Source: BDSA

In December 2020, the Government of Canada reported that edibles made up 20% of total cannabis sales; Statistics Canada data shows that 41.4% of Canadians who reported using cannabis in 2020 consumed edibles. While sales have gone up and down over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are clear indications that there is a substantial demand for edibles and extract products, which can be consumed more discreetly, with greater dosage precision and with fewer adverse effects (as opposed to smoking).

While sales of regulated edibles products continue to grow, edibles, extracts and topicals sales in Canada are facing a similar problem as dried flower sales: inventory growth is outpacing sales. Unsold stock sitting in inventory is growing at a dramatic pace, showing a clear lag in demand for these products on the legal market. How do we understand this contradiction?

1) Complex Regulatory Standards are a Major Barrier

Cannabis edibles compound the already existing problems around the conceptualization of cannabis products regulation. How should it work? Edibles can be considered in any of the following categories:

  • Cannabis as a pharmaceutical with medical application. Requires strict dosage and packaging requirements;
  • CBD as a nutraceutical with health benefits claimed. Requires specific nutraceutical regulations be followed;
  • Food product to be consumed. Must comply with food safety regulations around biological, chemical, physical hazards through a risk-based preventive control program. A full supply chain and ready-to-recall based system of regulatory standards need to be followed.

Incorporating elements from each of these three regulatory regimes into a single regulatory standards body is a confusing logistical and compliance challenge for both the regulators, and the producers and retailers of the product.

In mid-2019, the Government of Canada released the Good Production Practices Guide for Cannabis. This merged cannabis-specific regulations with food safety-specific regulations. Rigorous food safety requirements were combined with equally rigorous cannabis production and processing requirements, resulting in extremely laborious, detailed and specific regulations. These span everything from building design and maintenance, to pest control, to employee sanitation, to traceability – at all levels of the process. Navigating these regulations is a challenge, especially for many smaller producers who lack the necessary resources, like automation technology, to devote to understanding and tracking compliance.

2) Low Dosage Regulations Give an Edge to the Illicit Market

When edibles were legalized, THC dosage was capped at 10mg per package. For more experienced consumers, especially those who are dealing with chronic pain and other medical needs, this limit is far too low – and the unregulated market is more than able to fill this gap. One analyst from Brightfield pointed out that the dosage restriction, in combination with other regulations, will make it harder for the edibles market to grow in Canada.

It also makes the unregulated market almost impossible to beat. Barely more than half of cannabis consumers in Canada buy exclusively from government-licensed retailers, while 20% say that they will only buy unregulated products. According to a Deloitte report, 32% of legacy cannabis consumers said that unregulated products were better quality, and 21% reported that they preferred unlicensed products because there were more options available. Almost half of respondents also reported that quality was the biggest factor that would cause them to switch to regulated sources, and 28% said that higher THC content would prompt them to switch.

3) There is a Big Price Disparity between Legal and Illicit Edibles

As a result of dosage requirements and other factors, price per gram of regulated edible product is much higher than that of flower, unregulated edibles and edibles available through regulated medical distributors.

If you take the BC Cannabis Store’s price for Peach Mango Chews as an example: a 2pc package is $5.99. Since the dosage limits at 10mg per package, that’s the equivalent of $0.60/mg or $600/gram. A quick Google search reveals that an easily available edible from a medical cannabis distributor contains 300mg of THC and sells for $19.00, a price of $63.00/gram.

That means that not only is 10mg too low a dose for many users to achieve the result they were looking for, but the dosage restriction also makes the products less attractive from both a nutrition and cost standpoint. Deloitte reportsthat higher prices is the reason that 76% of long-time cannabis consumers continued to purchase from unregulated sources. The regulated industry as a whole is missing its legal market opportunity, where consumers prefer a lower price product with a greater range of dosage availability.

4) The Range of Products Available is Too Limited for Consumers

For most of 2020, chocolate edibles were the dominant product in this category in the Canadian market, garnering 65% of all edibles sales. But is this reflective of consumer wants? Despite a demand for other kinds of edibles like the ever-popular gummies, there are still only a few edible brands that offer the range of products consumers are asking for. According to research from Headset, there are 12 manufacturers in Canada making edibles but only two of them produce gummies. In comparison, 187 brands make gummies in the United States.

While some of this delay is likely due to the long licensing process in Canada and the newness of the market, there are other factors that make it challenging to bring a variety of products to market. The province of Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province, has banned the sale of edibles that resemble candies, confections, or desserts that could be attractive to children – giving yet another edge to unregulated sellers who can also capitalize on illegal marketing that copies from existing candy brands like Maynard’s.

When companies do want to introduce new products or advertise improvements to existing product lines, they are restricted by stringent requirements for packaging and marketing, making it harder to raise brand awareness for their products in both the legal and unregulated markets. Industry players are also complaining about government restrictions on consumers taste-testing products, which further compounds challenges of getting the right products to market.

In the meantime, illicit producers have also shown themselves to be savvy in their strategies to capture consumers. It is not uncommon to find illicit products packaged in extremely convincing counterfeit packaging complete with fake excise stamps. New consumers may assume the product they are purchasing is legal. Availability of delivery options for higher dosage, lower price illicit products is also widespread. All of this adds up to significant competition, even if it were easier to meet regulatory requirements.

Conclusion: Significant Room for Growth Remains Limited by Government Regulations

These four challenges are significant, but there are a number of opportunities that present themselves alongside them. A year and a half into the legalization of edibles, cannabis companies are getting a better picture of what Canadian consumers want and low dosages are proving to be desirable for Canadian consumers in some areas.

Some of the many infused products on the market today

In particular, sales of cannabinoid-infused beverages far outpaced other edibles categories last year, likely tied to the availability of these products in stores over the summer of 2020. BDSA’s research has shown that, in contrast with American consumers, the lower THC dosage for cannabis beverages is an advantage for Canadian consumers. Major alcohol brands like Molson Coors and Constellation Brands are investing heavily in this growing product area – though there the dosage limits also apply to how many products a consumer can buy at a time.

At the same time, the large quantity of unsold cannabis flower sitting in storage also poses an opportunity. While its quality as a smokeable product may have degraded, this biomass can be repurposed into extracts and edibles. Health Canada has also shown some responsiveness to industry needs when it shifted its stance to allow for Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), which will help improve shelf life of products.

While strict regulatory obstacles remain, challenges will continue to outweigh opportunities and the illicit market will remain a strong player in the edibles market. As regulations become clearer and producers become more accustomed to navigating the legal space, barriers to entry into the regulated cannabis market and specifically the extracts and edibles market, will decrease. Meanwhile, those getting into the edibles market will do well to be wary of the challenges ahead.

Steven Burton

3 Ways The Cannabis Industry Can Benefit By Adopting IoT Tech

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

The cannabis industry of the United States is unlike other horticulture markets in the country. It’s younger, less traditional and with roots in a black market, it’s no surprise that its forerunners aren’t afraid to experiment with new approaches and technology.

The rapid adoption of IoT (Internet of Things) technology is one way in particular that this new generation of producers is stepping up, and they’re beginning to reap the rewards. But to better demonstrate how significant the implementation of IoT tech can be, we’ll peek over the fence at other craft-oriented food industries—namely wine and chocolate—to discover how effective they can be long-term for serious players in the cannabis industry.

The results, as you can probably guess, are astounding.

Farm Productivity and Precision is on the Rise

IoT tech isn’t just a cool new thing for experimental growers – it’s as necessary as air in the 21st century. New and veteran farms alike are discovering ways to streamline production and enhance the quality of their crops. One of the most common implementations of IoT tech in agriculture is the installation of smart measurement tools. Remote sensors can monitor soil acidity, humidity, salt concentrations, temperature and a variety of other metrics, automating the collection of data and providing a clear picture of plant health. For many farms, like E. & J. Gallo Winery, this is a game-changer.By installing hundreds of sensors per block and upgrading to a more precise irrigation system, Gallo was able to connect moisture measurements to a central system

Before placing sensors in over 250 acres of their vineyard, Gallo could only make irrigation adjustments at the large block level. Even with careful monitoring of moisture levels, the grape yield was inconsistent in size and flavor. By installing hundreds of sensors per block and upgrading to a more precise irrigation system, Gallo was able to connect moisture measurements to a central system. The system collects the data, considers the weather forecast, and automatically irrigates small areas of the vineyard as needed to ensure all plants are optimally watered. This resulted in a more uniform crop, less water waste and more desirable grapes.

Cannabis farms are starting to pick up on this simple approach as well. Organigram, one of Canada’s leading Cannabis producers, is well aware of the benefits of this kind of automation and data collection. “All our grow rooms are helping us learn all the time,” says Matt Rogers, head of production at Organigram. “With 20 grow rooms going, we can gather as much information about these plants as you would get in a century of summers.”

Automation and precision have enabled by Gallo and Organigram to improve yield and increase precision, which has helped them achieve their well-respected status in the wine and cannabis industries.

The Supply Chain is Becoming More Transparent

As much as we would like the industry to be free of scams and crooks, there’s more than a few producers stretching the truth when it comes to labeling product. MyDx, a cannabis chemical analyzer, recently revealed that the label on the package often does not totally coincide with the product within.Protecting your brand’s reputation is a necessity and IoT tech is helping some pioneering industries do that.

For example, the most frequently tested cannabis strain, “Blue Dream”, averages a 64% difference in chemical makeup from sample to sample. Similarly, “Gorilla Glue” and “Green Crack” show as much as 83% variation from sample to sample—largely because there’s no regulation of these names.

While variation is inevitable from grower to grower, plant to plant, and even between different parts of the same plant, misleading labels and the addition of ‘fillers’ is a growing issue for edible cannabis producers, and the threat it poses to your brand isn’t minor. Protecting your brand’s reputation is a necessity and IoT tech is helping some pioneering industries do that.

Wine in China is a powerful example of how improved traceability can reduce large-scale mislabeling. Brand-name winemakers in the country face a massive problem: 70% of imported wines are counterfeits. To combat this, winemakers are attaching near-field communication (NFC) labels to imported and domestic bottles. It’s a dramatic solution, but one that’s protecting the brand of winemakers dedicated to quality and transparency.

As the legalization of cannabis spreads and coveted strains emerge, so will the availability of counterfeits—or, at the very least, less-than-truthful labeling. This has proven to be true in almost every specialty market, and adopting improved traceability tech will defend your brand and reputation from the consequences of selling a product that’s discovered to be more ‘filler’ than cannabis.

Compliance is Easily Achieved

The conversation of cannabis regulation generally revolves around age restrictions and driving while impaired, but government compliance is far more complicated – especially for facilities that create cannabis-infused food products. And here’s the frustrating part for those who must (and should) maintain a food safety plan: every time a regulation is adjusted (or every time a new variation is added in another state), facilities must be able to document changes in procedures, recipes and hazard controls. It gets complicated quickly, especially if all the documentation is kept manually.

There’s a lot to be gained by connecting your systems and products to the Internet of ThingsA central, connected system is the best way for food manufacturers to streamline and automate a variety of documentation and food safety tasks, which can mean thousands of dollars saved over months or years. Using software like Icicle, facilities can create a comprehensive data environment that’s dynamic and accessible from anywhere. Incoming measurements from connected equipment and employee records are collected and an admin dashboard allows you to see what food safety systems are thriving and which need revisiting. The records – transformed into a compliant food safety plan – can then be pulled up during audits and inspections on the spot, saving the months that companies usually spend preparing documentation.

According to Mitchell Pugh of Chewter’s Chocolates, their system “gives me a great peace of mind in the sense to know we have all our information prepared and anything that an inspector is going to ask for – whether they’re looking for one product, a general system, a certain hazard, or a bill of ingredients or materials or an allergen – is easy for us to search for it, pull it up, and find exactly what they’re looking for.”

Considering that most food manufacturers still record measurements and create food safety plans manually, this is an area where progressive companies can quickly outpace their non-automated rivals.

Whether you’re a grower, dispensary, food producer, or some other kind of cannabis professional, there’s a lot to be gained by connecting your systems and products to the Internet of Things. Which direction will you take?