The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.
In this week’s Byte, we’re taking a look at the hottest retail U.S. cannabis brands right now. Using a scoring methodology that factors in a wide variety of data sets, Pioneer’s algorithm tracks brand awareness, audience growth and engagement. Using more than 80,000 relevant data points per week, they analyze business activity across social media, earned media and web-related activities.
The brands listed below have the strongest marketing performance indicators, according to Pioneer Intelligence, which includes web activity. Here are a few insights that explain why some of these companies made the cut:
Cookies comes in at the eighth spot on July’s list. The brand does a lot of promotional content on their business development activity, which helps them make the news almost every week. This time around, they announced the debut of a new chain of Sativa-focused dispensaries under the brand name Lemonnade.
Terrapin Care Station took the fifteenth spot in July’s list. Terrapin made headlines this month with their expansion in Michigan. Their newest brick-and-mortar location is the first medical cultivation facility to open in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Surterra Wellness had a podium finish in July, becoming the third hottest U.S. cannabis retail brand. Back in early July, they received a lot of press for launching its line of tinctures in Texas.
Here are the top 15 hottest U.S. cannabis retail brands for July 2020:
Agilent Technologies just announced a new line of products for cannabis testing labs. Their newest tool, Agilent eMethods, are downloadable, plug-and-play instrument methods that “establish reliable efficient protocols with an end-to-end workflow that addresses the different testing needs, and offers guidance on sample preparation, consumables, and supplies.”
Those eMethods give labs a complete analytical system configuration for automating testing, sample prep, separation and detection, along with data processing and reporting abilities. The tool is designed with startup labs in mind, given how tedious developing new testing methodology can be.
According to Monty Benefiel, vice president at Agilent and general manager of the Mass Spectrometry Division, the new tool should give some labs a head start when it comes to method development. “The fledgling market of cannabis and hemp testing has an urgent need for solutions that help ensure efficiency as well as regulatory compliance,” says Benefiel. “Our new tool—Agilent eMethods—along with the Cannabis and Hemp Potency Kit and Cannabis Pesticide and Mycotoxin Kit gives labs a head start in establishing testing procedures, increasing productivity and profitability, and greatly reducing risk.”
In addition to the new eMethods, the company is also rolling out their newest consumables kits: The Cannabis and Hemp Potency Kit and the Cannabis Pesticide and Mycotoxin Kit. These are designed to help labs set up and simplify analyses for complex matrices. They include all the consumables necessary to perform each test and come with step-by-step instructions.
Dr. Linda Klumpers has a Ph.D. in clinical pharmacology of cannabinoids. Originally from the Netherlands, she began much of her career in studying cannabis there. She now lives and works in the United States, where she has worked on a number of projects, started her own company and is continuing her research on cannabis as an effective medicine.
After studying neuroscience at the University of Amsterdam, she went on to train at the Centre for Human Drug Research and Leiden University Medical Center, where Dr. Klumpers obtained a clinical pharmacology degree and a Ph.D. in clinical pharmacology of cannabinoids. She has been researching cannabinoids in humans since 2006. Dr. Klumpers co-authored a number of peer-reviewed cannabinoid publications and she has received five honors and awards for her work, including the BJCP Prize from the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
In 2016, she moved to the United States and founded Cannify, an online tool that helps patients and clinicians with product matching and providing legitimate cannabis education based in sound science. In 2018, Dr. Klumpers joined forces with Dr. Michael Tagen, another clinical pharmacologist, to launch Verdient Science, a consulting partnership. Their work at Verdient Science includes helping clients set up human studies, advise on FDA submissions, creating course materials, adjusting product pipelines and product development strategies, among other areas of focus.
Right now, Dr. Klumpers is waiting to hear back from a grant application they submitted to study THC and CBD ratios for medical efficacy in chronic pain patients. We sat down with Dr. Klumpers to hear her story, what she is working on now and how she hopes to continue researching cannabis as an effective medicine.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell us about your background as a research scientist. How did you get involved in cannabis?
Dr. Linda Klumpers: During my Ph.D. work, we studied the effects of so-called cannabinoid receptor antagonists that block the effects of THC – I prefer to say “we”, as research is always done by multiple people. The problem with studying these compounds in healthy volunteers is that you can’t observe acute effects, which means that you won’t measure any effect after a single dose. To circumvent this issue, we applied a trick and developed a ‘challenge test’: after you give the ‘invisible’ blocking compound, you stimulate the cannabinoid system by giving people THC. If the subjects don’t feel the effects of THC, you know that the blocker worked. One thing lead to another and we ended up studying various administration methods, such as intrapulmonal (via the lungs) with vaporization, oral and sublingual. We studied the behavior of cannabinoids in the body and how the body responded to them.
CIJ: Can you share some information on the projects you are working on? What is Cannify and what is Verdient Science?
Dr. Klumpers:Cannify was founded in 2016 after I saw that too many people had opinions about cannabis that were more based on emotion than fact. Besides, I noticed that a majority of the scientific literature on cannabis pharmacology was left unnoticed and unapplied to the people getting exposed to cannabis, such as patients, the cannabis industry – that was in a very different stage at that time – healthcare providers and regulators. With my Ph.D. in cannabis pharmacology, I wanted to add a level of objectivity to cannabis education and research. Cannify’s goals are to understand the science of cannabis, and share this with others.
The way we do this is multi-fold:
Cannify Quiz: Patients with an interest in cannabis often want to know the science about cannabis and their condition. Our quiz helps these people by asking in-depth questions and showing them relevant scientific literature in a personalized report. After that, an overview is given with products and product matching scores. Our account system allows users to track their progress over time. Product manufacturers, dispensaries and other companies can use the quiz for their websites and their stores to help out retail employees and save them time, and to receive insight with our analytics on customer desires and behavior. Needless to say, an educated customer is a better customer. It is important that customers come and leave stores well-informed.
Education: Speaking of education, our website contains educational articles about everything cannabis: from plant to patient and from product to mechanism of action. We regularly publish educational quizzes for people to test their knowledge level. With a free Cannify account, you can find all of our educational quizzes and save your results. We also provide customized courses, and have educated a wide audience varying from industry professionals to CME-accredited courses for healthcare providers. On top of that, our educational videos in dispensaries (in collaboration with our partner, Enlighten) reach customers and retail employees.
Research: To expand the knowledge on cannabis, performing and especially sharing research is essential. We have already performed and published some of Cannify’s results on descriptive statistics and effect prediction during conferences, as well as a review paper on cannabis therapeutics in a peer-reviewed journal and a book chapter. This year, we expect to co-publish the results of a survey in different sleep patient groups. We collaborated with the Centre of Excellence for Epilepsy and Sleep Medicine in the Netherlands on a peer-reviewed paper from which we expect new research to follow to benefit these patients. We have also co-submitted a grant to study THC and CBD ratios in chronic pain patients: fingers crossed! Another important next step is to test a healthcare provider-specific version of Cannify’s quiz in the clinic once COVID dies down. I want to add that after working in a clinical lab for many years, it is important to combine the results of clinical trials to what people do in real life, which is what we do with Cannify.
And here’s some information on Verdient Science:
Verdient Science is a consulting partnership I have with clinical pharmacologist Dr. Michael Tagen. We provide clinical and translational pharmacology expertise to improve the quality of product development & clinical testing. While both working as independent consultants, we decided from 2018 to start working together to offer better services. Since then, our work has been very variable and includes helping clients set up human studies, advise on FDA submissions, creating course materials, adjusting product pipelines and product development strategies to make them more efficient and cheaper, performed scientific due diligence and much more. When clients want additional services that are beyond our expertise, we are typically able to introduce them to various people per expertise area, or refer them to our partner companies, Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV) with Dr. Markus Roggen, and Via Innovations with Dr. Monica Vialpando. A benefit of working with the same partners includes smooth handovers and the feeling of a one stop shop.
CIJ: How does Cannify match available products to consumer needs? Is there an algorithm you developed that matches moods or feelings to cannabinoids or chemical profiles?
Dr. Klumpers: That is a great question and the core of what we do! So back to the Cannify quiz: there are three steps:
Users fill in questions;
A personalized report is generated with the relevant science;
The user gets a product overview with product matching scores.
The report and the matching scores are generated using algorithms that are regularly updated. These algorithms are based on various data sources:
Literature: There is a lot of available literature, and we make sure to select the most relevant and reliable studies;
Raw data: There is only so much one can find in the literature, and lots is hidden in the raw data. Therefore, we piled up data from studies done at various research institutions, including the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University, and used them in our algorithms;
Internal studies: From the thousands of users filling in their results, there is a lot of information that we should learn from. This feedback loop helps us to better understand how the lab relates to real life situations.
CIJ: The world of cannabis research has been historically stymied by red tape, DEA interference and a host of federal regulations. How have you managed to work through all that? Do you have a DEA license? What did it take to get it?
Dr. Klumpers: Luckily, a majority of our research was and is done outside of the US. You still need to obtain the appropriate licenses, but I was perhaps lucky to have filled in every form very thoroughly and we got the licenses within months. The process is quite meticulous, as you need separate licenses for almost every step from manufacturing to administration. An additional complication is that our cannabis is not stored in our own building, but in the hospital pharmacy across the street, involving transport via the public road. Despite the roadblocks, including a legal procedure about this matter that was going on in parallel, I had no major issues getting our work done. For our research in the US, we were lucky to have been working with partners that already have the required license.
Also with publishing, I have never had an issue with the cannabis stigma. Generally, in my field of science, good quality science is very much welcomed and appreciated, and this was even before the time that there were four different cannabis-related journals, as is the case nowadays.
CIJ: Looking to the future, where do you hope to focus your research efforts? Where do you think the cannabis community should be focusing their efforts in the next 5-10 years?
Dr. Klumpers: Besides continuing to analyze the data generated from Cannify, I keep my fingers crossed for the grant application I mentioned earlier on THC and CBD ratios in chronic pain patients. Although we know that CBD is able to influence THC-induced effects, it is not known at what dosages, which ratios and how the effects are related to each other. For example: is CBD able to decrease certain side-effects of THC without decreasing pain-relieving effects?
Whatever is done, wherever in the community: good quality data are keyNext to that, I am also interested in other neurological and psychiatric disorders, and, of course, my Ph.D. love: the cannabinoid antagonists. Sadly, all the research efforts on this compound group were halted more than a decade ago. However, there is a renewed interest. I would love to help turn these compounds into effective and safe medicines.
Regarding the cannabis community: 5-10 years sounds really far away for an industry that is relatively new to many, but a lot has already changed since I started cannabis research more than 14 years ago and time has flown by. Some changes have been positive and others less so. Whatever is done, wherever in the community: good quality data are key. Many companies gather data and even publish them in peer-reviewed journals, but that does not always mean that the data are useful or that the studies were done well. Only a few minor changes to how and which data are gathered, and so much more can be done. What can help with achieving this is to let the right people do the right thing: many call themselves a ‘cannabis scientist’ or ‘cannabis expert’, but that does not mean anything. What has someone truly achieved and what is their exact expertise? A Ph.D. in chemistry is not going to help you in setting up effect studies, neither will I be able to improve your product’s shelf life or extraction yield. Getting the right people in the right place is key. Lastly: the cannabis community should stay critical. The length of one article in Cannabis Industry Journal wouldn’t be enough to lay out all the misconceptions that people have about cannabis. Make sure that those misconceptions do not live on and do not be afraid to admit you don’t know something, irrespective of the branch you work in: only then, can the cannabis community progress to the benefit of all.
While legalization of recreational cannabis remains in a fluid state in the United States, the medical application of cannabis is gaining popularity. As such, the diversification of pharmaceutical and edible cannabis products will inevitably lead to increased third party testing, in accordance with Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates. Laboratories entering into cannabis testing, in addition to knowing the respective state mandates for testing procedures, should be aligned with Federal regulations in the food and pharmaceutical industries.
In 2010, the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA)1 established a cannabis committee with the primary objective of addressing issues related to the practices and safe use of legally-marketed cannabis and cannabis-related products. The committee issued a set of recommendations, outlining best practices for the cultivation, processing, testing and distribution of cannabis and cannabis products. The recommendations for laboratory operations sets some basic principles for those performing analysis of cannabis products. These principles, complementary to existing good laboratory practices and international standards, focus on the personnel, security, sample handling/disposal, data management and test reporting unique to laboratories analyzing cannabis samples.
As local and federal regulations continue to dictate medical and recreational cannabis use, many will venture into the business of laboratory testing to meet the demands of this industry. Thus, it is not surprising that cannabis producers, distributors and dispensaries will need competent testing facilities to provide reliable and accurate results. In addition, our understanding of cannabis from an analytical science perspective will derive from test reports received from these laboratories. Incorrect or falsified results can be costly to their business and can even lead to lawsuits when dealing with consumer products. Examples of fines and/or suspensions related to incorrect/false reporting of results have already gained coverage in news media. This sets up the need for the cannabis industry to establish standardized protocols for laboratory competency.
The international standard, ISO 17025 – ‘General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories’ – plays an important role in providing standard protocols to distinguish labs with proven quality, reliability and competency. The industry needs to rely not only on the initial accreditation received, but also on the ongoing assessment of the labs to ensure continuous competency.
Receiving accreditation involves an assessment by an International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) recognized accrediting body, which ensures that laboratories have the competency, resources, personnel and have successfully implemented a sound quality management system that complies with the international standard ISO/IEC 17025:2017. This ISO standard is voluntary, but recognized and adopted globally by many industries for lab services. Cannabis companies can ensure that the test services they receive from accredited laboratories will meet the requirements of the industry, as well as the state and federal regulatory agencies. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental organization with over 160 memberships of national standards bodies, and all with a unified focus on developing world-class standards for services, systems, products, testing to ensure quality, safety, efficiency and economic benefits.
ILAC is a non-profit organization made up of accreditation bodies (ABs) from various global economies. The member bodies that are signatories to the ILAC Mutual Recognition Arrangement (ILAC MRA) have been peer evaluated to demonstrate their competence. The ILAC MRA signatories, in turn, assess testing labs against the international standard, ISO/IEC 17025 and award accreditation. Accreditation is the independent evaluation of conformity assessment in accordance with the standard and related government regulations to ensure the lab carry out specific activities (called the ‘Scope’) impartially and competently. Through this process, cannabis industry stakeholders and end users can have confidence in the test results they receive from the labs.
Understanding the principles of accreditation and conformity to ISO standards is the beginning of the ISO 17025 accreditation process. Similar to other areas of testing, accreditation gives cannabis testing labs global recognition such that their practices meet the highest standards in providing continuous consistency, reliability and accuracy.
Many government agencies (state and federal) in the US and around the world are mandating cannabis testing laboratories to seek accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025:2017, in an effort to standardize their practice and provide the industry with needed assurance. Conformance with the standard enables labs to demonstrate their competency in generating reliable results, thereby providing assurance to those who hire their services.
Testing of cannabis can be very demanding and challenging given that state and federal regulations require that the performance and quality of the testing activities must provide consistent, reliable and accurate results. Hence, labs deciding to set up cannabis testing will have to take extra care in setting up a laboratory facility, acquiring all necessary and appropriate testing equipment, hiring qualified and experience staff and developing and implementing test methods to ensure the process, sample throughput, data integrity and generated output are continuously reliable, accurate and meet the need of the clients and requirements of the regulatory bodies. This demands the lab to establish and implement very sound quality assurance program, good laboratory practices and a quality management system (QMS).
Some expected challenges are:
Standardization of test methods and protocols
Since there is no federal guidance in standardization of test methods and protocols for cannabis testing in US, it is challenging for laboratories to research and validate other similar, established methods and gain approval from the local and state authorities.
Cannabis testing activities must be physically isolated from other testing activities for those labs conducting business in other areas of testing such as environment, food, mining, etc.
Microbiological testing requires additional physical isolation within the testing facility, maintaining sterility of the environment, test area and test equipment.
The test equipment such as Chromatographs (GC/LC), Spectrometers (ICP-MS, ICP-OES, UV-Vis), and other essential analytical instruments must meet the specifications required to detect and quantify and statistically justify the test parameters at the stipulated concentration levels. That means the limit of detection and limit of quantitation of each parameter must be well below the regulatory limits and the results are statistically sound.
Calibration, maintenance and operation of analytical equipment must be appropriate to produce results traceable to international standards such as International System of Units and National Institute of Standards and Technology (SI and NIST).
The qualification and experience of the staff should ensure standard test methods are implemented and verified to meet the specifications.
They should have a sound understanding of the QA/QC protocols and effective implementation of a quality management system which conforms to ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standard.
Staff should be properly trained in all standard operating procedures (SOPs) and receiving schedule re-training as needed. Training should be accurately documented.
The QMS should not only meet the requirements of ISO 17025, but also be appropriate to the scope of the laboratory activities. Such a system must be planned, implemented, verified and continuously improved to ensure effectiveness.
Finally, stakeholders should seek expert advice in establishing a cannabis testing lab prior to initiating the accreditation. This can be achieved through a cyclic PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT process. Labs that are properly established can attain the accreditation process in as little as 3-5 months. An initial ‘Gap Analysis’ can be extremely helpful in this matter.
IAS, an ILAC MRA signatory and international accrediting body based in California is one such organization that provides training programs for those interested in attaining accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025:2017. It is a nonprofit, public-benefit corporation that has been providing accreditation services since 1975. IAS accredits a wide range of companies and organizations including governmental entities, commercial businesses, and professional associations worldwide. IAS accreditation programs are based on recognized national and international standards that ensure domestic and/or global acceptance of its accreditations.2
American Herbal Products Association , 8630 Fenton Street, Suite 918 , Silver Spring, MD 20910 , ahpa.org.
“I really wanted an outlet for me, like someone like me, to be able to help out in this fight,” Wells said in a Harvard Crimson interview. “I knew I was, by far, not the only one who felt this way. And so what happened was, on the walk home from work that day from the lab, I thought, ‘Hey, I should try to organize something here in Boston so I could potentially be a part of a group that makes themselves available to health department officials or county officials.’”
Volunteers are made up of a mix of laboratory scientists, data scientists, software engineers, medical writers, CEOs and epidemiologists – from academic research institutes, national labs and private industry. Many state and local government agencies and organizations have already accessed the list for reference, including FEMA.
Members of the cannabis industry can help to combat COVID-19. “The cannabis industry relies on specialized laboratories that routinely perform qPCR-based microbial tests,” says Wells. “As a result, these labs have basic skill sets and facilities required to participate in community COVID-19 testing.” Quantitative Polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), is a common technique for determining if there are microbial contaminants in flower, concentrates and infused products.
Some cannabis industry leaders have already taken to the call. “With the trend in legalization, the cannabis industry has built an excess testing capacity in anticipation of an increase in volumes,” says David Winternheimer, PhD, CEO of Pacific Star Labs, a Los Angeles-based cannabis research organization with an ISO-accredited testing laboratory. “As an essential industry, cannabis companies are open to helping the wider population in a crisis like this, and testing could easily be adopted in labs with excess microbial testing capacity.”
Michael Wells and his band of volunteers are asking to help get the word out to other scientists who would like to sign-up at https://covid19sci.org and for anyone to help share the database link with any relevant person in government or health services. “Right now, it is all hands on deck. We need every lab, facility, and pair of skilled hands to be deployed in this fight against the most dangerous pathogen our species has experienced at this scale in our lifetimes.”
endCoronavirus.org is a volunteer organization with over 6,000 members built and maintained by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) and its collaborators. The group specializes in networks, agent-based modeling, multi-scale analysis and complex systems and provides expert information on how to stop COVID-19.
The COVID-19 National Scientist Volunteer Database is a database of over 8,000 scientists from all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam who are eager to volunteer our time, expertise, equipment, and consumables to help you respond to the COVID-19 crisis. They have aggregated our contact information, locations, and skills sets into this easy to use centralized database. Their members include experts in scientific testing, bioinformatics, and data management, as well as key contacts willing to donate lab space and testing supplies.
I think that we need to start changing the terminology around the hazards associated with cannabis from food safety hazards to product safety hazards. These hazards have not only been associated with harmful effects for those that ingest cannabis infused products, but also for those that consume the cannabis products in other ways such as inhalation (vaping or smoking). So, when we refer to these hazards as food safety hazards, the immediate thought is edibles, which misleads cultivators, manufacturers and consumers to have a false sense of security around the safety of products that are consumed in other ways.
There are several product safety hazards that have been associated with cannabis. These hazards can become a public health problem if not controlled as they could harm the consumer, regardless of the method of consumption.
Let’s take a look at the different types of hazards associated cannabis:
Biological Hazards refer to those microorganisms that can cause illness to the consumer of a product that contain them. They are not visible to the naked eye and are very dangerous when their metabolic by-products (toxins) are ingested or their spores are inhaled. The symptoms for illnesses caused by these microorganisms will vary. Consumers may experience gastrointestinal discomfort (vomiting, diarrhea), headaches, fever and other symptoms. The ingestion of these pathogens, allergens or their by-products may lead to death, if the illness is not treated on time or if the consumer of the product is immunocompromised. In addition, the inhalation of mold spores when smoking cannabis products, can lead to lung disease and death. Some of the biological hazards associated with cannabis are: Salmonella sp., E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Aspergillus sp. and Penicillium sp.
Chemical Hazards refer to those chemicals that can be present in the plant or finished product due to human applications (pesticides), operational processes (extraction solvents and cleaning chemicals), soil properties (heavy metals), environmental contamination (radiological chemicals) or as a result of occurring naturally (mycotoxins and allergens). Consuming high concentrations of cleaning chemicals in a product can lead to a wide range of symptoms from mild rash, burning sensation in the oral-respiratory system, gastrointestinal discomfort or death. In addition, long term exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, radiological contaminants and mycotoxins may lead to the development of cancers.
Physical Hazards refer to those foreign materials that may be present in the plant or finished product. Foreign materials such as rocks, plastics or metals can cause harm to the consumer by chipping teeth or laceration of the mouth membranes (lips, inner cheeks, tong, esophagus, etc.) In the worst-case scenario, physical hazards may lead to choking, which can cause death due to asphyxiation.
These hazards can be prevented, eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level when foundational programs (Good Agricultural/Cultivation Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, Allergen Management Program, Pest Control, etc.) are combined with a Food [Product] Safety Plan. These lead to a Food [Product] Safety Management System that is designed to keep consumers safe, regardless of the method of consumption.
You’ve survived seasons of cannabis cultivations, bringing in quality plants in spite of mold, mites, drought and other challenges that had to be conquered. Extraction methods are sometimes challenging, but you are proud to have a cannabinoid extract that can be added into your own products for sale. Edibles are just waiting to be infused with the cannabinoids, for consumers demanding brownies, gummies, tinctures and almost any food and beverage imaginable. You’ve been through the fire, and now the rest is easy peasy, right?
Actually, producing edibles may not be so seamless as you think. Just as in the rest of the food industry, food safety practices have to be considered when you’re producing edibles for public consumption, regardless of the THC, CBD, terpene or cannabinoid profile. Once you’ve acquired the extract (a “food grade ingredient”) containing the active compounds, there are three types of hazards that could still contribute to foodborne illness from your final product if you’re not careful- Biological, Chemical and Physical.
Biological hazards include pathogenic bacteria, viruses, mold, mildew (and the toxins that they can produce) that can come in ingredients naturally or contaminate foods from an outside source. Chemical hazards are often present in the kitchen environment, including detergents, floor cleaners, disinfectants and caustic chemicals, which can be harmful if ingested- they are not destroyed through cooking. Physical objects abound in food production facilities, including plastic bits, metal fragments from equipment, staples or twist ties from ingredient packages, and personal objects (e.g., buttons, jewelry, hair, nails.)
There are three main safety precautions that can help control these hazards during all the stages of food production, from receiving ingredients to packaging your final products:
1. Avoid Cross Contamination
Prevent biological, chemical or physical hazards from coming into contact with foods
Keep equipment, utensils and work surfaces clean and sanitized.
Prevent raw foods (as they usually carry bacteria) from coming into contact with “Ready-to-eat” foods (foods that will not be cooked further before consuming).
Keep chemicals away from food areas.
2. Personal Hygiene
Don’t work around foods if you’re sick with fever, vomiting or diarrhea. These could be signs of contagious illness and can contaminate foods or other staff, and contribute to an outbreak.
Do not handle ready-to-eat foods with bare hands, but use a barrier such as utensils, tissues or gloves when handling final products such as pastries or candies.
Wash hands and change gloves when soiled or contaminated.
Wear hair restraints and clean uniforms, and remove jewelry from hands and arms.
3. Time & Temperature control
Prevent bacterial growth in perishable foods such as eggs, dairy, meats, chicken (TCS “Time and Temperature Control for Safety” foods according to the FDA Model Food Code) by keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
Refrigerate TCS foods at 41˚ F or below, and cook TCS foods to proper internal temperatures to kill bacteria to safe levels, per state regulations for retail food establishments.
If TCS foods have been exposed to room temperature for longer than four hours (Temperature Danger Zone 41˚ F – 135˚ F,) these foods should be discarded, as bacteria could have grown to dangerous levels during this time.
As cannabis companies strive for acceptance and legalization on a federal level, adopting these food safety practices and staff training is a major step in the right direction, on par with standards maintained by the rest of the retail food industry. The only difference is your one specially extracted cannabinoid ingredient that separates you from the rest of the crowd… with safe and healthy edibles for all.
Across the country and across the world, governments that legalize cannabis implement increasingly rigorous requirements for laboratory testing. Helping to protect patients and consumers from contaminants, these requirements involve a slew of lab tests, including quantifying the levels of microbial contaminants, pathogens, mold and heavy metals.
Cannabis and hemp have a unique ability to accumulate elements found in soil, which is why these plants can be used as effective tools for bioremediation. Because cannabis plants have the ability to absorb potentially toxic and dangerous elements found in the soil they grow in, lab testing regulations often include the requirement for heavy metals testing, such as Cadmium, Lead, Mercury, Arsenic and others.
In addition to legal cannabis markets across the country, the USDA announced the establishment of the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program, following the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, essentially legalizing hemp. This announcement comes with information for hemp testing labs, including testing and sampling guidelines. While the information available on the USDA’s website only touches on testing for THC, required to be no greater than 0.3% dry weight concentration, more testing guidelines in the future are sure to include a discussion of heavy metals testing.
In an application note produced by Agilent Technologies, Inc., the Agilent 7800 ICP-MS was used to analyze 25 elements in a variety of cannabis and hemp-derived products. The study was conducted using that Agilent 7800 ICP-MS, which includes Agilent’s proprietary High Matrix Introduction (HMI) system. The analysis was automated by using the Agilent SPS 4 autosampler.
The instrument operating conditions can be found in Table 1. In this study, the HMI dilution factor was 4x and the analytes were all acquired in the Helium collision mode. Using this methodology, the Helium collision mode consistently reduces or completely eliminates all common polyatomic interferences using kinetic energy discrimination (KED).
As a comparison, Arsenic and Selenium were also acquired via the MassHunter Software using half-mass correction, which corrects for overlaps due to doubly charged rare earth elements. This software also collects semiquantitative or screening data across the entire mass region, called Quick Scan, showing data for elements that may not be present in the original calibration standards.
SRMs and Samples
Standard reference materials (SRMs) analyzed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) were used to verify the sample prep digestion process. Those included NIST 1547 Peach Leaves, NIST 1573a Tomato Leaves and NIST 1575 Pine Needles. NIST 1640a Natural Water was also used to verify the calibration.
Samples used in the study include cannabis flower, cannabis tablets, a cannabidiol (CBD) tincture, chewable candies and hemp-derived cream.
Calibration standards were prepared using a mix of 1% HNO3 and 0.5% HCl. Sodium, Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium and Iron were calibrated from 0.5 to 10 ppm. Mercury was calibrated from 0.05 to 2 ppb. All the other elements were calibrated from 0.5 to 100 ppb.
After weighing the samples (roughly 0.15 g of cannabis plant and between 0.3 to 0.5 g of cannabis product) into quartz vessels, 4 mL HNO3 and 1 mL HCl were added and the samples were microwave digested using the program found in Table 2.
HCI was included to ensure the stability of Mercury and Silver in solution. They diluted the digested samples in the same acid mix as the standards. SRMs were prepared using the same method to verify sample digestion and to confirm the recovery of analytes.
Four samples were prepared in triplicate and fortified with the Agilent Environmental Mix Spike solution prior to the analysis. All samples, spikes and SRMs were diluted 5x before testing to reduce the acid concentration.
The calibration curves for Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Mercury can be found in Figure 1 and a summary of the calibration data is in Table 3. For quality control, the SRM NIST 1645a Natural Water was used for the initial calibration verification standard. Recoveries found in Table 4 are for all the certified elements present in SRM NIST 1640a. The mean recoveries and concentration range can also be found in Table 4. All the continuing calibration solution recoveries were within 10% of the expected value.
Internal Standard Stability
Figure 2 highlights the ISTD signal stability for the sequence of 58 samples analyzed over roughly four hours. The recoveries for all samples were well within 20 % of the value in the initial calibration standard.
In Table 5, you’ll find that three SRMs were tested to verify the digestion process. The mean results for most elements agreed with the certified concentrations, however the results for Arsenic in NIST 1547 and Selenium in both NIST 1547 and 1573a did not show good agreement due to interreferences formed from the presence of doubly-charged ions
Some plant materials can contain high levels of rare earth elements, which have low second ionization potentials, so they tend to form doubly-charged ions. As the quadrupole Mass Spec separates ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio, the doubly-charged ions appear at half of their true mass. Because of that, a handful of those doubly-charged ions caused overlaps leading to bias in the results for Arsenic and Selenium in samples that have high levels of rare earth elements. Using half mass correction, the ICP-MS corrects for these interferences, which can be automatically set up in the MassHunter software. The shaded cells in Table 5 highlight the half mass corrected results for Arsenic and Selenium, demonstrating recoveries in agreement with the certified concentrations.
In Table 6, you’ll find the quantitative results for cannabis tablets and the CBD tincture. Although the concentrations of Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Cobalt are well below current regulations’ maximum levels, they do show up relatively high in the cannabis tablets sample. Both Lead and Cadmium also had notably higher levels in the CBD tincture as well.
A spike recovery test was utilized to check the accuracy of the method for sample analysis. The spike results are in Table 6.
Using the 7800 ICP-MS instrument and the High Matrix Introduction system, labs can routinely analyze samples that contain high and very variable matrix levels. Using the automated HMI system, labs can reduce the need to manually handle samples, which can reduce the potential for contamination during sample prep. The MassHunter Quick Scan function shows a complete analysis of the heavy metals in the sample, including data reported for elements not included in the calibration standards.
The half mass correction for Arsenic and Selenium allows a lab to accurately determine the correct concentrations. The study showed the validity of the microwave sample prep method with good recovery results for the SRMs. Using the Agilent 7800 ICP-MS in a cannabis or hemp testing lab can be an effective and efficient way to test cannabis products for heavy metals. This test can be used in various stages of the supply chain as a tool for quality controls in the cannabis and hemp markets.
Disclaimer: Agilent products and solutions are intended to be used for cannabis quality control and safety testing in laboratories where such use is permitted under state/country law.
Microbial contamination on cannabis products represents one of the most significant threats to cannabis consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients who are at risk of developing harmful and potentially fatal infections.
As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada mandate testing cannabis products for certain microbes. The two most popular methods for microbial safety testing in the cannabis industry are culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).
When considering patient safety, labs should choose a method that provides an accurate account of what is living on the sample and can specifically target the most harmful microbes, regardless of the matrix.
1. The Method’s Results Must Accurately Reflect the Microbial Population on the Sample
The main objective of any microbial safety test is to give the operator an indication of the microbial population present on the sample.
Culture-based methods measure contamination by observing how many organisms grow in a given medium. However, not all microbial organisms grow at the same rate. In some cases, certain organisms will out-compete others and as a result, the population in a post-culture environment is radically different than what was on the original sample.
One study analyzed fifteen medicinal cannabis samples using two commercially available culture-based methods. To enumerate and differentiate bacteria and fungi present before and after growth on culture-based media, all samples were further subjected to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and metagenomic analyses (MA). Figure 1 illustrates MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.
The results demonstrate substantial shifts in bacterial and fungal growth after culturing on the 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms. Thus, the final composition of microbes after culturing is markedly different from the starting sample. Most concerning is the frequent identification of bacterial species in systems designed for the exclusive quantification of yeast and mold, as quantified by elevated total aerobic count (TAC) Cq values after culture in the total yeast and mold (TYM) medium. The presence of bacterial colonies on TYM growth plates or cartridges may falsely increase the rejection rate of cannabis samples for fungal contamination. These observations call into question the specificity claims of these platforms.
The Live Dead Problem
One of the common objections to using qPCR for microbial safety testing is the fact that the method does not distinguish between live and dead DNA. PCR primers and probes will amplify any DNA in the sample that matches the target sequence, regardless of viability. Critics claim that this can lead to false positives because DNA from non-viable organisms can inflate results. This is often called the Live-Dead problem. However, scientists have developed multiple solutions to this problem. Most recently, Medicinal Genomics developed the Grim Reefer Free DNA Removal Kit, which eliminates free DNA contained in a sample by simply adding an enzyme and buffer and incubating for 10 minutes. The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added, which prevents the Grim Reefer Enzyme from eliminating DNA when the viable cells are lysed (see Figure 2).
2. Method Must Be Able to Detect Specific Harmful Species
Conversely, qPCR assays, such as the PathoSEEK, are designed to target DNA sequences that are unique to pathogenic Aspergillus species, and they can be run using standard qPCR instruments such as the Agilent AriaMx. The primers are so specific that a single DNA base difference in the sequence can determine whether binding occurs. This specificity reduces the frequency of false positives in pathogen detection, a frequent problem with culture-based cannabis testing methods.
Additionally, Medicinal Genomics has developed a multiplex assay that can detect the four pathogenic species of Aspergillus (A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus) in a single reaction.
3. The Method Must Work on Multiple Matrices
Marijuana infused products (MIPs) are a very diverse class of matrices that behave very differently than cannabis flowers. Gummy bears, chocolates, oils and tinctures all present different challenges to culture-based techniques as the sugars and carbohydrates can radically alter the carbon sources available for growth. To assess the impact of MIPs on colony-forming units per gram of sample (CFU/g) enumeration, The Medicinal Genomics team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments: tryptic soy broth (TSB), hemp oil and hard candy. The team then homogenized the samples, pipetted amounts from each onto 3M™ Petrifilm E. coli / Coliform Count (EC) Plates, and incubated for 96 hours. The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control. Figures 3 and 4 show the results in 24-hour intervals.
This implies the MIPs are interfering with the reporter assay on the films or that the MIPs are antiseptic in nature.
Many MIPs use citric acid as a flavoring ingredient which may interfere with 3M reporter chemistry. In contrast, the qPCR signal from the Agilent AriaMx was constant, implying there is microbial contamination present on the films, but the colony formation or reporting is inhibited.
This is not an issue with DNA-based methods, so long as the DNA extraction method has been validated on these matrices. For example, the SenSATIVAx DNA extraction method is efficient in different matrices, DNA was spiked into various MIPs as shown in Table 1, and at different numbers of DNA copies into chocolate (Table 2). The SenSATIVAx DNA extraction kit successfully captures the varying levels of DNA, and the PathoSEEK detection assay can successfully detect that range of DNA. Table 3 demonstrates that SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes that may be present on cannabis for a variety of organisms spiked onto cannabis flower samples.
AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.
In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.
Where It All Began With Cannabis
As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.
According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”
Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs
Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”
According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.
Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles
The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.
Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.
While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing
Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.
“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”
When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.
Food Authenticity & Fraud
One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.
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