According to a press release, Beleave Inc. announced recently that their subsidiary, Beleave Kannabis Corporation, received the ISO 9001:2015 certification. The facility that received the certification, based in Hamilton, Ontario, was certified “for the research, development, and production of cannabis products for medicinal and recreational purposes,” reads the press release.
Beleave is a vertically-integrated cannabis business headquartered in Oakville, Ontario that cultivates cannabis as well as producing oils and extracts. The company operates in both medical and recreational sectors of the market. They have been working on developing cannabis food and beverage products, such as infused powders and sugars, expecting that the recreational cannabis market in Canada will soon open its doors to infused products in 2019.
ISO 9001:2015 is an international standard that stipulates requirements for a quality management system (QMS), showing that a facility can provide products that meet customer and regulatory requirements. ISO 9001:2015 is the most up-to-date version for the standard, which can help show a company’s commitment to quality, efficiency and consistency. The 2015 version uses criteria with an emphasis on risk-based thinking to aid in the application of the process approach, improved applicability for services and increased leadership requirements.
“We continue to develop international partnerships and plan to enter global markets”The company’s facility was certified by Bureau Veritas Certification Holding SAS in late January of 2019. According to Roger Ferreira, chief science officer at Beleave, the process of certification was no easy undertaking. “After many months of hard work and preparation, we are extremely proud to be one of the few licensed producers of cannabis to have received ISO 9001:2015 accreditation,” says Ferreira. “This certification reflects Beleave’s ongoing commitment to quality across key elements of our business, which includes research, innovation, and production of cannabis products.”
Going beyond Canada, Ferreira says they are building the foundation of a company preparing to expand internationally. “Further, this internationally recognized certification for our quality management system positions us well as we continue to develop international partnerships and plan to enter global markets,” says Ferreira. Through their ownership in Procannmed S.A.S., they are licensed to cultivate and produce medical cannabis products out of Colombia, with the goal to export products to the Latin American market. They have also partnered with Canymed GmbH, based in Germany, to further explore opportunities in the European medical cannabis market.
LabVantage Solutions, known in other testing industries as a leader in laboratory information management systems (LIMS), has launched their own cannabis-specific LIMS. Unveiled at the Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, OR, the purpose-built software is designed specifically for cannabis testing and certification.
Here are a few key highlights of their system, taken from the press release:
Available through perpetual licensing or SaaS
One platform for all tests, instruments, sample information, and results data, with option to embed ELN, LES, and other modules
Registers sample requests, including a portal for remote requests from growers and distributors
Fully audited sample lifecycle and audit trail
Certificates of Analysis customized for local regulatory requirements
Includes American Herbal Pharmacopoeia® tests for Cannabis Inforescense.
LabVantage says their system can support ISO/IEC 17025 compliance, ISO 9001:2015, 21 CFR Part 11 and Annex 11 and GLPs as well. According to Bob Voelkner, vice president of sales and marketing, it has a very open architecture as well as web services technology, which allows for integration with METRC and other traceability software platforms. “We know the testing methodologies these labs use, so the customer doesn’t have to create that from scratch,” says Voelkner. “This is meant to be out of the box and ready-to-use, so the customer can get up and running with minimal lag time.” LabVantage has actually been a provider of LIMS solutions for over 30 years and they serve a broad range of lab types.
Voelkner says they’ve been working with clients at cannabis labs over the past few years to configure their LIMS for this space specifically. “The lab managers can modify workflows on their own without having to write code,” says Voelkner. “We have a well-established solution with a good track record, that’s been around for a while and is proven. Some other players that are brand new to the space may be new to LIMS and that may not be a good thing. We are a market leader in the global LIMS space with a proven product that is very well established and very powerful.” Voelkner adds that lab managers get to own their data, not LabVantage. “You own the data. It is your database and it is proprietary to you. It is yours to use as you see fit.”
Lab managers have the option to configure the system to adapt to new compliance issues themselves, or work with the LabVantage professional services team to build it out further. “This particular space is new and emerging, it is pretty dynamic — we see a lot of change happening,” says Voelkner. “We believe this space needs a highly flexible platform and this is a proven technology solution with a lot of configurability built into it.”
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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