According to a press release published earlier this month, the Bio-Rad iQ-Check Aspergilllus Real-Time PCR Detection Kit has received AOAC International approval. The test covers detection for four different Aspergillus species: A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus.
The detection kit covers those Aspergillus species for testing in cannabis flower and cannabis concentrates, produced with our without solvents. The PCR detection kit was validated through the AOAC Research Institute’s Performance Tested Method Program. They conducted a study that resulted in “no significant difference” between the PCR detection kit and the reference method.
The kit was evaluated on “robustness, product consistency, stability, inclusivity and exclusivity, and matrix studies,” the press release says. Bio-Rad also received approval and validation on the iQ-Check Free DNA Removal Solution, part of the workflow for testing cannabis flower.
The test kit uses gene amplification and real-time PCR detection. Following enrichment and DNA extraction, the test runs their PCR technology, then runs the CFX Manager IDE software to automatically generate and analyze results.
Bio’Rad has also recently received AOAC approval for other microbial testing methods in cannabis, including their iQ-Check Salmonella II, iQ-Check STEC VirX, and iQ-Check STEC SerO II PCR Detection Kits.
There are numerous plastic bottle and closure manufacturers in the cannabis industry today. And, there is a significant quantity of common bottle and closure styles as well. Many companies manufacture the same or similar products as their competition. But what if you’re searching for something different? Something unique that no one else has? A plastic bottle that will make your cannabis product stand out from your competition. Where can you find that package that is truly “something special?” Something that will elevate your brand?
It doesn’t matter if your cannabis business is a start-up in its infancy or a mature company with an established loyal customer following, creating attention-grabbing packaging is essential to your success. The packaging is the all-important and critical first impression. While the primary function of any packaging is to contain, protect and market your cannabis products, your packaging is a reflection of your company in the eyes of the consumer. In many ways, the package is the product. Using creative plastic packaging is a great way to differentiate your cannabis products from those of your competitors.
Finding the right manufacturing partner is the first step. Look for a company that has custom design capabilities and understands your vision for the perfect cannabis packaging.
When is Custom Bottle Design the Right Choice?
Sometimes, an off-the-shelf stock bottle and closure will work just fine. But if you are introducing a brand-new product that is unique to the industry, or if you are using a new product to introduce the fresh new look of your brand, it makes sense to develop plastic packaging that is distinct and eye-catching. You want your brand and products to look special and stand out on the shelf. There could also be filling equipment, regulatory, labelling, light sensitivity or other packaging requirements you must address as well.
Start every custom cannabis bottle project with a trusted manufacturer who thoroughly understands how you want the plastic packaging to look and the specifications it must meet. Ensuring that these qualitative and quantitative details are discussed will lead to on-time, on-budget and on-target custom cannabis packaging solution.
Achieving the Look You Want
Depending on your requirements, there could be several solutions to achieving the special look and specifications of your custom packaging. Discuss all of the design options that meet the needs of your product with your manufacturing partner; they should help you decide on the best direction for your packaging.
Selecting the right materials for your custom plastic bottle and closure is a big part of the process. Select materials that will provide the necessary aesthetics, chemical resistance, light transmission, bottle capacity and weight requirement that will protect your product.
Your manufacturer should also be able to guide you through the production process: should the bottle be blow molded or injection molded? Should it be made on IBM (Injection Blow Molding) equipment or EBM (Extruded Blow Molding) equipment? Answering these questions will ensure that the plastic bottle will be made efficiently and to the correct specifications.
Flawless Closure Integration for Your Cannabis Packaging
Designing the bottle is important, but you must also consider what type of closure will work best. Both items must be engineered to work seamlessly with each other. If the closure doesn’t work properly with the bottle, it can compromise the product it contains. Closures must always seal perfectly to ensure the integrity of the product inside. They must also be designed to function efficiently and meet the requirements of your filling operation.
A detailed CAD drawing should be provided, outlining every critical dimension of your HDPE or PET bottle and plastic closure. The CAD drawing provides the direction needed to create the manufacturing mold for your custom design. It also serves as a reference check to ensure that the product is produced according to your specs.
Ensure Quality through the Manufacturing Process
Ensure that your packaging partner has quality checks in place throughout the manufacturing process. Error detection systems, random sampling and testing will safeguard 100% conformity. It’s also important that manufacturers adhere to cGMP best practices and certifications under a globally recognized accredited program. This represents their commitment to continuously improving manufacturing processes and quality systems. It also helps minimize waste and manufacturing errors while increasing productivity. Risk of product contamination and other errors will be alleviated, and product efficacy and shelf life expectancy will be met.
Responsive Customer Service and Support
Many packaging manufacturers claim to provide exceptional customer service, but few actually rise up to that level. This is an important aspect of your project and you need to know that your questions will be answered and that your producer will keep you informed of any changes. Knowing that you can trust your supplier allows you to concentrate on other aspects of your business, like growth and profitability.
Reinforce Your Brand with Customized Packaging
In today’s competitive cannabis market, it’s more important than ever to have your product stand out from the competition. Your brand should help build awareness and develop consumer loyalty. When you deliver a consistently reinforced message, consumers will instantly recognize your brand. This consistency is a key factor in encouraging consumers to purchase your product over the competition — even when they want to try something new. Consistency makes your brand feel more dependable and people gravitate towards things they trust.
Your brand consists of more than just your logo and company name. Your brand identifies who you are, what your company stands for and the integrity of your product. Customized cannabis packaging will reinforce your brand and attract consumers to your products. Take time to find the right cannabis packaging partner who can help differentiate your brand and products from your competitors with special, eye-catching plastic packaging.
The journal Frontiers in Plant Science recently shared an important article from researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, highlighting the “Pathogens and Molds Affecting Production and Quality of Cannabis Sativa.”
As a chemist focused on the science of preventing and mitigating mold in greenhouse and indoor cannabis grow facilities, this piece was fascinating to me. Like many others, it details and explains prevalent mold like Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus – things I see in grows every day.
But wait, there’s more fungi
The research and resulting article also brought up another type of fungi – endophytic mold. Endophytic mold usually lives symbiotically with plants, or is at least beneficial for both plant and fungi.
But not always.
In the past, the industry has believed that damaging mold spores were found on the outside of the flower. When moved, that flower would release the spores and send them flying – often creating massive cross-contamination issues for indoor grows.
“While cannabis is an incredibly powerful plant in terms of its medicinal properties, it is unfortunately highly susceptible to many pest and pathogens,” says Hope Jones, PhD, CEO, Adivina & ECS. “And it is this susceptibility that is so challenging to many inexperienced or undisciplined grow operations.”
Now, however, we know that there’s another culprit to add to the list: the inner parts of the plant can also be a source of endophytic cross contamination and mold.
Since it grows inside of the plant, this fungus creates high spore counts that can cross contaminate from outside, into the flower.
Treating mold in a facility
Here’s the good news:
This seemingly bad news – that there’s a new fungus to worry about, and it is inside the flower – may actually help cannabis grows struggling with mold, and those who are following the proper protocols already.
Effective mitigation protocols can include things like treating HVAC systems, controlling humidity, using products like chlorine dioxide to treat irrigation lines, enforcing protective clothing and shoe covers for employees, reducing the amount of in-and-out for employees around grow rooms.
These are important upstream and environmentally-focused integrated pest management (IPM) programs that will usually keep facilities clean and relatively mold-free.
But if these programs are in place, and there’s still an issue, Endophytic fungi may be to blame.
If you are having ongoing mold issues but have ruled out cross-contamination and a facility without proper protocol, look to the mother plant.
“Small mistakes in agricultural practices are amplified with cannabis,” Dr. Jones continues. “And today’s propagation practices of traditional cloning add to this vulnerability. Cannabis is an annual plant and by keeping mothers in a perpetual state of vegetative growth for years, and taking repetitive cuttings produces clones in a highly stressed state. This stressed state diminishes genetic potential and weakens a plant’s ability to fight disease and pests.”
Testing for and addressing endophytic fungi
If these concerns are ringing a bell, remember, there is also a way to test for Endophytic mold.
Checking cuttings from suspected mother plants over a period of time is the best way to see if the Endophytic mold is present.
A section of the mother plant cutting is placed into a solution (for example, as outlined by the article, a very concentrated hypochlorite followed by 70% Ethanol) that will kill all of the microorganisms that are present on the surface of the plant tissues.
From there, an unadulterated dissection of the internal tissues can be extracted and cultured for quantification and identification of endophytic fungi.
“Tissue culture offers a form of genetic rebooting returning the plant to its natural genetic potential and thereby strengthening its natural ability to defend against environment assault,” says Dr. Jones. “It also allows the breeder to conduct pathogenic disease testing which provides the entire industry with a higher level of scientific certainty and analysis.”
If you find this mold inside of the mother plant, your facility’s mold problem could be a systemic issue, not an environmental one.
If you do find that Endophytic mold is causing issues, of course, you may have to destroy the mother plant.
This should not mean the end of a strain. Tissue culture on a cutting is an option that can eliminate the unwanted fungi and save the genetics. Using those genetics to regrow a mother will start fresh and avoid the intrinsic mold that was plaguing the strain prior.
The practice of checking mother plants for Endophytic mold is not yet commonplace in cannabis, but the hemp business is leading the way.
They’re testing to create very clean plants, so you don’t have issues during cultivation.
Major growers in the U.S. could save millions in lost harvests with mold mitigation. If your current IPM program isn’t doing the trick, you may want to follow in hemp’s footsteps and look inside the plant.
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.
Cannabis legalization has taken the United States by storm, with 33 states approved for medicinal cannabis use — 11 of which are also approved for recreational use for adults aged 21 and over. With new patients and consumers entering the market every day, it’s more important than ever for cannabis cultivators to establish more effective methods for mold and fungal prevention in their crops and to ensure consumer confidence in their brands.
Today, many cultivators address the risk of mold and fungus growth by testing crops for contaminants at the end stage of production. While this helps to catch some infected product before it reaches the market, this method is largely ineffective for mold and fungal prevention during the cultivation process. In fact, recent studies have shown an 80% failure rate in mold and fungal testing in Denver cannabis dispensaries. By relying on late-stage, pass/fail testing, cannabis entrepreneurs also expose themselves to increased risk of lost crops and profits.
However, emerging sensor technologies exist that can test plants during the grow process, significantly reducing the risks associated with cannabis cultivation while increasing the bottom line for commercial grow operations. By leveraging data from these monitoring sensors along with environmental automation systems that are integrated with data analytics platforms, cannabis professionals can take a proactive approach to achieve the ideal environmental conditions for their crops and prevent against mold and fungal infestation.
Common Causes for Bud Rot in Indoor Growing Systems
Botrytis cinerea — commonly known as “bud rot” — is a pathogenic fungi species that creates a gray mold infection in cannabis plants. An air-borne contaminant, it is among the most prevalent diseases affecting marijuana crops today and can lead to significant damages, particularly when left untreated during post-harvest storage. Bud rot is one of the most difficult challenges cannabis entrepreneurs face: Once plants have been affected, only 2% can be expected to recover. This is because Botrytis cinerea can use multiple methods for attacking host plants, including using the plant’s natural defenses against it to continue infestation.
While difficult to contain, bud rot is very easy to spot. Plants affected with the fungus will begin yellowing, experience impaired growth, and develop gray fungus around its buds. Overall crop yield will be significantly reduced, leading to decreased profit for cannabis cultivators. The biggest contributing factors to a Botrytis cinerea infestation are as follows:
Humidity: Indoor grow facilities that maintain humidity levels in excess of 45% are breeding grounds for mold and fungus. These environments can become perfect conditions for mold and fungal growth.
Temperature: Bud rot typically thrives in environments where temperatures fall between 65- and 75-degrees Fahrenheit, which is why greenhouses and grow rooms are often the victim of such infestations.
Ventilation: Poor airflow is another contributing factor to Botrytis cinerea Without proper ventilation, excess moisture buildup will eventually result in mold and mildew growth.
Strain: Some marijuana strains are better equipped to fend off bud rot infection. In particular, sativa plants have a higher resistance to mold development than their C. indica and C. ruderalis cousins.
Controlling mold and fungal growth in commercial grow facilities is a top priority for cannabis cultivators. Not only detrimental to their profitability and crop yield, infected plants can pose serious health risks to consumers, especially for immunocompromised patients. Consuming cannabis products that have been compromised by bud rot or other mold and fungal infections can cause a wide range of medical concerns, including pneumonitis, bronchitis, and other pulmonary diseases. As a result, growers are required to dispose of all infected plants without the possibility to sell.
Bud rot isn’t the only culprit responsible for cannabis plant destruction. Powdery mildew, Fusarium, sooty molds, and Pythium all contribute to the challenges faced by cannabis professionals. In fact, a recent study conducted by Steep Hill Labs and University of California, Davis – Medical Center found that in 20 randomly-selected samples submitted for testing, all samples showed detectable levels of microbial contamination7. Many of these samples also contained significant pathogenic microorganism contamination. Without proper detection and prevention methods in place, these pesky plant-killers will only continue to terrorize the cannabis cultivation industry.
The Current Cannabis Cultivation Landscape
The data is clear: Current practices for cannabis cultivation are insufficient for preventing against mold and fungal growth. Sterilization and pass/fail testing do not identify the root cause of harmful infestations in plants, therefore leaving cannabis professionals in the dark about how to better optimize their grow conditions for improved crop reliability and safety. In order to prevent against damages incurred from mold and fungal infestation, marijuana growers must be more diligent in their grow condition monitoring practices.
Many cannabis professionals rely on manual monitoring to identify environmental changes within their indoor grow facilities. While it’s important to collect data on your operation’s essential systems, doing so without the right tools can be time-consuming and ineffective. Manual monitoring often relies on past data and does not illustrate the relationship between different systems and their impact on environmental changes. The goal is to assemble data from all the grow systems and create correlations on actual bio-environmental conditions during the grow process to compare to yield results. This is only available when an information management platform is synthesizing data from all the systems within the grow facility and presenting meaningful information to the growers, facility operators and owners.
Especially as the cannabis industry is expected to grow exponentially in coming years, growers need more robust tools for tracking and manipulating environmental changes within their indoor growing systems.
Leveraging Building Automation Systems & Data Analytics in Cannabis Cultivation
A powerful approach to prevent environmental conditions that are known to lead to mold and fungus growth exists in leveraging the data produced from your grow facility’s various automation systems. Most commercial cultivation facilities have multiple stand-alone and proprietary systems to control their indoor environment, making it difficult to not only collect all of this valuable data, but also to achieve the level of grow condition monitoring necessary for mold and fungal prevention.
With some data analytics platforms, such as GrowFit Analytics, data is collected across disparate systems that don’t normally communicate with one another, providing access to the key insights necessary for achieving environmental perfection with your cannabis crops. A viable solution collects vital grow facility system data and relevant bio-environmental monitoring data, and delivers this information in one, centralized software interface. The software then will apply analytic algorithms to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) while working to detect system anomalies, faults, and environmental fluctuations. The right analytics solution should also be customizable, allowing you to track the KPIs that are most important to your unique facility, and to achieve the vision of your chief grower. Ultimately, the software should serve up actionable insights that empower facility management and growers.
Collecting reliable data from different grow facility systems and environmental sensors can be a complex process and the information collected illustrates more than just what’s working right and what isn’t. By implementing an advanced data analytics solution, cannabis cultivation professionals can now be empowered to track minute details about their indoor grow facility, providing a safer, healthier environment for their crops and avoiding those environmental conditions that lead to mold and fungus altogether.
An ideal data analytics platform won’t simply collect data to be analyzed at a later date, and simple trending of sensor data is not enough. Information — especially in a commercial grow facility — is time-sensitive, which is why growers should select a system that offers real-time analytics capabilities. Some platforms offering real-time analytics utilize cloud computing, allowing for easy access from anywhere while also providing enhanced security to protect sensitive facility data. The most robust data analytics platforms provide detailed historical data for your entire crop’s lifecycle that provide a “digital recipe” to replicate successful crops, and fine-tune the process for continuous improvement.
Data analytics tools can also impact the bottom line by lowering operational costs. GrowFit Analytics, for example, was born out of a software solution designed to lower energy costs for large complex buildings like commercial grow facilities.
The data and insights provided can help identify opportunities for greater energy efficiency, which can lead to significant utility savings. Grow facilities operate 24 hours/day, with energy expenses representing one of the largest operational costs. With data analytics tools at their disposal, facility managers are armed with the information they need to improve system efficiency, increase energy savings, and improve profitability.
Eliminating Mold & Fungus from the Future of Cannabis Cultivation
By focusing on grow condition monitoring using data analytics tools, cannabis professionals can effectively eliminate the risk of mold and fungus growth in their crops. Leading data analytics tools make tracking environmental changes simple and easy to manage, allowing cannabis professionals to take a proactive approach to mold and fungus prevention. As we look to the future of the cannabis cultivation industry, it’s paramount for professionals to explore the technological advancements available that can help them address their business’ most pressing challenges.
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.
Vintners have known for centuries that every step in the winemaking process—from cultivation and harvest techniques to fermentation, aging and bottling—has immense impact on the quality and value of the final product.
And that same level of scrutiny is now being applied to cannabis production.
As someone who has worked in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space for decades, I’ve been interested in finding out how post-harvest storage and packaging affect the quality and value of cannabis flower. After digging into the issue some more, storage conditions and humidity levels have indeed come into focus as major factors, beyond just the challenges of preventing mold.
I enlisted my research team at Boveda, which has studied moisture control in all manner of manufactured and natural CPG products, to look closer at what’s happening with cannabis once it leaves the cultivation room. There’s not a lot of research on cannabis storage—we checked—and so we explored this aspect further. We were frankly surprised by what a big effect evaporation has on quality and how this is playing out on the retail level.
We suspected moisture loss could affect the bottom line too, and so we did some number-crunching.
It’s well understood that the weight of cannabis flower directly correlates with its profitability—the heavier the yield, the higher the market value. Here’s what our analysis found: A mere 5% dip below the optimal relative humidity (RH) storage environment eliminates six pounds per every 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower. At $5 per gram wholesale, that works out to upwards of $13,500 in lost revenue—and that’s with just a 5% drop in RH below the target range of 55-65% established by ASTM International, an independent industry standards organization.
We also purchased flower at retailers in multiple state markets and commissioned a lab to test the samples, which revealed that most strains sold today are well below the optimal RH range (55-65%). Regardless of fluctuating wholesale prices, when you do the math it’s clear that tens of thousands of dollars in revenue are simply evaporating into thin air.
Why So Dry?
Historically, cultivators, processors and packagers have emphasized keeping flower below a particular humidity “ceiling” for a reason: Flower that’s too moist is prone to hazardous mold and microbial growth, so it’s understandable that many operators err on the side of being overly dry.
The misconception that cannabis flower can be “rehydrated” is another cause of dryness damage. But this method irrevocably damages the quality of the flower through trichome damage.
Those delicate plant structures that house the all-important cannabinoids and terpenes become brittle and fragile when stored in an overly dry environment, and are prone to breaking off from the flower; they cannot not be recovered even if the flower is later rehydrated.
When trichomes are compromised, terpenes responsible for the aroma, taste and scent of cannabis also can evaporate. Overly dried-out cannabis doesn’t just lose weight and efficacy—it loses shelf appeal, which is particularly risky in today’s market.
Cured cannabis flower can remain in storage potentially for months prior to sale or consumption. By the time it reaches the end consumer, much of the cannabis sold in regulated environments in the U.S. and Canada has suffered from dry damage.
There are various humidity controls available for cannabis cultivators: desiccants that absorb water vapor; mechanical equipment that alters RH on a larger scale; or two-way humidity-control packets designed for storage containers.
In the CPG sector, with other moisture-sensitive products such as foods and electronics, we’ve seen that employing humidity controls will preserve quality, and cannabis flower is no different.
Saltwater-based humidity control solutions with two-way vapor-phase osmosis technology automatically add or remove water vapor as needed to maintain a constant, predetermined RH level and ensures a consistent level of moisture weight inside the cannabis flower.
Here’s one more notable finding we discovered in our storage research: Third-party lab tests commissioned by Boveda showed cannabis stored with humidity control had terpene and cannabinoid levels that were 15% higher than cannabis stored without.
Cannabis stored within the optimal humidity range maximizes all the qualities that attract and retain customers. Similar to wine-making, when cannabis cultivators focus on quality control they need to look beyond the harvest.
In 1887, Julius Petri invented a couple of glass dishes, designed to grow bacteria in a reproducible, consistent environment. The Petri dish, as it came to be known, birthed the scientific practice of agar cultures, allowing scientists to study bacteria and viruses. The field of microbiology was able to flourish with this handy new tool. The Petri dish, along with advancements in our understanding of microbiology, later developed into the modern field of microbial testing, allowing scientists to understand and measure microbial colonies to detect harmful pathogens in our food and water, like E. coli and Salmonella, for example.
The global food supply chain moves much faster today than it did in the late 19th century. According to Milan Patel, CEO of PathogenDx, this calls for something a little quicker. “Traditional microbial testing is tedious and lengthy,” says Patel. “We need 21st century pathogen detection solutions.”
Milan Patel first joined the parent company of PathogenDx back in 2012, when they were more focused on clinical diagnostics. “The company was predominantly built on grant funding [a $12 million grant from the National Institute of Health] and focused on a niche market that was very specialized and small in terms of market size and opportunity,” says Patel. “I realized that the technology had a much greater opportunity in a larger market.”
He thought that other markets could benefit from that technology greatly, so the parent company licensed the technology and that is how PathogenDx was formed. Him and his team wanted to bring the product to market without having to obtain FDA regulatory approval, so they looked to the cannabis market. “What we realized was we were solving a ‘massive’ bottleneck issue where the microbial test was the ‘longest test’ out of all the tests required in that industry, taking 3-6 days,” says Patel. “We ultimately realized that this challenge was endemic in every market – food, agriculture, water, etc. – and that the world was using a 140-year-old solution in the form of petri dish testing for microbial organisms to address challenges of industries and markets demanding faster turnaround of results, better accuracy, and lower cost- and that is the technology PathogenDx has invented and developed.”
While originally a spinoff technology designed for clinical diagnostics, they deployed the technology in cannabis testing labs early on. The purpose was to simplify the process of testing in an easy approach, with an ultra-low cost and higher throughput. Their technology delivers microbial results in less than 6 hours compared to 24-36 hours for next best option.
Out of all the tests performed in a licensed cannabis testing laboratory, microbial tests are the longest, sometimes taking up to a few days. “Other tests in the laboratory can usually be done in 2-4 hours, so growers would never get their microbial testing results on time,” says Patel. “We developed this technology that gets results in 6 hours. The FDA has never seen something like this. It is a very disruptive technology.”
When it comes to microbial contamination, timing is everything. “By the time Petri dish results are in, the supply chain is already in motion and products are moving downstream to distributors and retailers,” Patel says. “With a 6-hour turnaround time, we can identify where exactly in the supply chain contaminant is occurring and spreading.”
The technology is easy to use for a lab technician, which allows for a standard process on one platform that is accurate, consistent and reproduceable. The technology can deliver results with essentially just 12 steps:
Take 1 gram of cannabis flower or non-flower sample. Or take environmental swab
Drop sample in solution. Swab should already be in solution
Transfer 1ml of solution into 1.5ml tube
Conduct two 3-minute centrifugation steps to separate leaf material, free-floating DNA and create a small pellet with live cells
Conduct cell lysis by adding digestion buffer to sample on heat blocks for 1 hour
Conduct Loci enhancement PCR of sample for 1 hour
Conduct Labelling PCR which essentially attaches a fluorescent tag on the analyte DNA for 1 hour
Pipette into the Multiplex microarray well where hybridization of sample to probes for 30 minutes
Conduct wash cycle for 15 minutes
Dry and image the slide in imager
The imager will create a TIFF file where software will analyze and deliver results and a report
Their DetectX product can test for a number of pathogens in parallel in the same sample at the same time down to 1 colony forming unit (CFU) per gram. For bacteria, the bacterial kit can detect E. coli, E. coli/Shigella spp., Salmonella enterica, Listeria and Staph aureus, Stec 1 and Stec 2 E.coli. For yeast and mold, the fungal kit can test for Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus terreus.
Their QuantX is the world’s first and only multiplex quantification microarray product that can quantify the microbial contamination load for key organisms such as total aerobic bacteria, total yeast & mold, bile tolerant gram negative, total coliform and total Enterobacteriaceae over a dynamic range from 100 CFU/mL up to 1,000,000 CFU/mL.
Not all of the PathogenDx technology is designed for just microbial testing of cannabis or food products. Their EnviroX technology is designed to help growers, processors or producers across any industry identify areas of microbial contamination, being used as a tool for quality assurance and hazard analysis. They conducted industry-wide surveys of the pathogens that are creating problems for cultivators and came up with a list of more than 50 bacterial and fungal pathogens that the EnviroX assay can test for to help growers identify contamination hotspots in their facilities.
Using the EnviroX assay, growers can swab surfaces like vents, fans, racks, workbenches and other potential areas of contamination where plants come in contact. This helps growers identify potential areas of contamination and remediate those locations. Patel says the tool could help growers employ more efficient standard operating procedures with sanitation and sterilization, reducing the facility’s incidence of pathogens winding up on crops, as well as reduction in use of pesticides and fungicides on the product.
Deploying this technology in the cannabis industry allowed Milan Patel and the PathogenDx team to bring something new to the world of microbial testing. Their products are now in more than 90 laboratories throughout the country. The success of this technology provides another shining example of how the cannabis market produces innovative and disruptive ideas that have a major impact on the world, far beyond cannabis itself.
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.
Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.
The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.
It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.
Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.
There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.
The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.
If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.
Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.
He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.
The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.
The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.
The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.
Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.
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