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.
The topic of sustainability has grown in importance and priority for both consumers and regulators. From reducing emissions to lowering energy and water consumption, cannabis growing facilities face unique challenges when it comes to designing sustainable operations. Moreover, as the cannabis market grows and usage becomes more accepted, regulatory bodies will continue to increase the number of directives to help ensure the safety and quality of cannabis products.
Ubiquitous throughout cannabis grow rooms and greenhouses, flooring can be easily overlooked, yet offers an economical way to create more sustainable facilities. Many of today’s grow rooms are located in old retrofitted warehouses or former industrial buildings that were designed without sustainability or environmental concerns in mind.
Combined with energy efficient lighting and more thoughtful water usage, flooring can help create a more efficient facility that not only improves business operations, but also contributes to a better bottom line.
Whether in an old warehouse space or a new structure designed from the ground up, cannabis businesses face unique operational challenges when it comes to sustainable best practices.
Energy Consumption: Like any indoor farm, lighting plays an important role in cannabis growing facilities. Traditional grow lights can utilize a large amount of electricity, putting a strain on the company budget as well as regional energy resources. Switching to highly-efficient LED lighting can help facilities reduce their consumption, while still maximizing crop yield.
Water Consumption: Among the thirstiest of flora, cannabis plants require consistent and plentiful watering for healthy and fruitful crop production.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Enrichment: In many cases, carbon dioxide is introduced into facilities to help enhance the growth of crops. However, this practice may pose safety and health risks for workers, the surrounding community and the planet at large. CO2 is a greenhouse gas known to contribute to climate change.
In order to head off upcoming regulatory restrictions, as well as to alleviate the mounting safety and health concerns, it behooves cannabis grow room managers and owners to explore alternatives for improving sustainability in their facilities.
Flooring Requirements for More Sustainable Cannabis Facilities
Spanning thousands or even hundreds of thousands of square feet throughout a facility, flooring can be a unique way to introduce and support sustainable practices in any grow room or greenhouse.
When seeking to improve operational efficiency and implementing the use of sustainable practices in cannabis facilities, look for flooring systems with the following characteristics:
Impervious Surfaces— Fertilizers, fungicides, and other chemicals can infiltrate porous unprotected concrete to leach through the slab matrix and into the soil and groundwater below. Non-porous flooring options, such as industrial-grade, fluid-applied epoxies and urethanes, are impervious in nature, helping to isolate contaminants on the surface, thus enabling proper cleanup and disposal.
Light-Reflective Finishes— Light-colored white or pastel floor surfaces in glossy finishes can help reduce the amount of energy needed to properly illuminate grow rooms. By mirroring overhead lighting back upward, bright, light-reflective flooring can help minimize facilities’ reliance on expensive ceiling fixtures and electricity usage.
USDA, FDA, EPA, OSHA and ADA Compliancy— With cannabis industry regulations currently in flux, grow facilities that select food- and pharmaceutical-compliant flooring will be ahead of the game. Governing bodies in some states have already begun expanding the facility requirements of these sectors to the cannabis market.
Durable and Easy Care— Having to replace flooring every couple of years imposes high costs on businesses as well as the environment. Installation of many traditional types of flooring produces cut-off waste and requires landfill disposal of the old floor material. In contrast, by installing industrial-grade flooring systems that are highly durable and easy-to-maintain, facilities can count on long-term performance and value, while helping to minimize disposal costs and concerns.
Optimal flooring can help cultivation facilities reduce waste, improve the efficacy of existing lighting and lengthen floor replacement cycles for a better bottom line and a healthier environment. Additionally, having the right grow room floor can assist facilities in meeting regulatory requirements, help ensure production of quality products and improve the safety for consumers and staff.
Flooring Benefits for Employees and Consumers
Safety is paramount in any workplace. When it comes to the manufacture of foodstuffs and other consumed products, government oversight can be especially stringent. With the right compliant flooring in place, cultivation facilities can focus on the rest of their business, knowing that what’s underfoot is contributing to the safety of employees and their customers.
Chemical Resistance— Floors can be exposed to a high concentration of chemicals, acids and alkalis in the form of fertilizers, soil enhancers and other substances. In processing locations, the proper disinfecting and sanitizing of equipment can require harsh solvents, detergents and chemical solutions, which can drip or spill onto the floor, damaging traditional flooring materials. It pays to select cannabis facility flooring with high chemical resistance to help ensure floors can perform as designed over the long term.
Thermal Shock Resistance— Optimal cannabis facility flooring should be capable of withstanding repeated temperature cycling. Slab-on-grade structures in colder climates may be especially vulnerable to floor damage caused by drastic temperature differences between a freezing cold concrete slab and the tropical grow room above. This extreme contrast can cause certain floor materials to crack, delaminate and curl away from the concrete substrate. The resulting crevices and uneven surfaces present trip and fall hazards to employees and leave the slab unprotected from further degradation. As an alternative, thermal shock-resistant floors, such as urethane mortar systems, furnish long-lived functionality even when regularly exposed to extreme temperature swings.
Humidity and Moisture Resistance— Traditional floor surfaces tend to break down in ongoing damp, humid environments. Cannabis facility flooring must be capable of withstanding this stress and more.
Pathogen Resistance— Undesirable microbes, fungi and bacteria can thrive in the moist, warm environments found in grow rooms. Floors with extensive grout lines and gaps provide additional dark, damp locations for pathogen growth. Fluid-applied flooring results in a virtually seamless surface that’s directly bonded to the concrete. Integral floor-to-wall cove bases can further improve wash down and sanitation.
Proper Slope and Drainage— Where food and/or pharmaceutical facility regulations have already been extended to cannabis operations, flooring is required to slope properly toward a floor drain. This prevents puddling, which can be a slip hazard as well as a microbe breeding ground. Unlike more typical materials, resinous flooring offers an economical solution for correcting floor slope wherever needed.
The Problems Presented by Traditional Flooring Options
Previously, cannabis growers often relied on traditional greenhouse-type flooring, including tamped down dirt floors, gravel or bare concrete. However, current and upcoming regulations are curtailing the use of these simple flooring options.
Growers often compare and contrast the benefits and value of traditional greenhouse flooring with more modern solutions, such as fluid-applied epoxy and urethane floors.
Dirt and gravel flooring offers little opportunity to properly sanitize, thus potentially inviting microorganism and pathogen invasion, contamination and costly damage. Growers who have turned to bare concrete floors face other concerns, including:
Unprotected concrete is inherently porous and therefore able to quickly absorb spilled liquids and moisture from the air. In addition, organic and synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and chemicals can leach through the concrete floors, contaminating the groundwater, injuring the surrounding environment and wildlife.
Older slabs often lack an under-slab vapor barrier. Even in new construction, a single nail hole can render an under-slab barrier ineffective. In these situations, moisture from underneath the floor slab can move upward osmotically through the alkaline slab, leading to blistering and damage to standard commercial floor coverings.
Bare concrete floors can stain easily. These dark stains tend to absorb light instead of reflecting it, contributing to a potential increase in energy usage and cost.
The mold proliferation encouraged by the warmth and humidity of grow rooms can easily penetrate into the depths of unprotected slab surfaces, eventually damaging its structural integrity and shortening the usable life of the concrete.
While traditional greenhouse flooring options can initially seem less expensive, they frequently present long-term risks to the health of cannabis grow businesses. In addition, the performance of dirt, gravel and bare concrete floors runs counter to the industry’s commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of growing facilities.
Choosing Sustainable Grow Room Flooring
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry is undergoing enormous change and faces numerous environmental challenges. Luckily, optimal flooring options are now available to help growers economically increase their eco-friendly practices on many fronts. By focusing on quality resinous flooring, cannabis growers can get closer to meeting their sustainability goals, while simultaneously contributing to improved operation efficiency, enhanced yields and an increased bottom line.
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.
As of today, Arizona is the only state in the country that has legalized medical cannabis but does not require producers to test their medical cannabis. States throughout the country that legalize medical cannabis routinely implement regulations that require third-party, independent lab testing to protect patient and consumer safety. Arizona legalized medical cannabis for a number of qualifying conditions back in 2011, but still has no measure like other states to protect patient safety.
Lawmakers in Arizona now have the opportunity to change that with SB1494, which passed unanimously through the state’s Senate back in March of 2019. According to the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA), the bill awaits action in the House of Representatives. The ACLA says in a press release that “supporters of the bill are calling on lawmakers to move on a bill that unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this year.” The bill would require producers to use independent, third-party labs to test cannabis for things like harmful toxins and molds.
According to Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the ACLA and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, the ACLA was formed for a few important reasons: “We feel it is very important that we encourage and cultivate a professional and collaborative rapport among the reputable Arizona cannabis labs,” says Treacy. “So that we can call upon the collective groups’ years of experience to help provide insight and suggestions on how we as a group can insure the most accurate and consistent results for our clients throughout the state and ultimately their patients.” Treacy went on to add that it is particularly important their collective voice be heard at the State Capitol as lawmakers work towards passing SB 1494.
“There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”George Griffeth, President of the ACLA, says there is a sense of urgency in passing this bill before the voters decide on legalizing recreational adult-use cannabis next year. “Everyone agrees that now is the time to be proactive to protect patients from unsafe contaminants,” says Griffeth. “Currently 61 tons of medical marijuana is consumed by patients and many believe that the number of people using the medicine will continue to grow. With a ballot initiative related to the recreational use of marijuana facing voters next year, Arizona must act now to make sure standards are in place.”
They say the bill has bipartisan support and many stakeholders in Arizona’s cannabis industry express support for it as well. For Ryan Treacy, he is worried about patients consuming harmful chemicals and toxins. “My colleagues and I are deeply concerned that more than two-hundred thousand people who use medical marijuana could be inadvertently exposing themselves to toxic chemicals, E. Coli, Salmonella or mold,” says Treacy. “There isn’t any reason to wait for someone to get sick before the legislature passes this bipartisan bill. Let’s get it done!”
Treacy says this bill is particularly difficult to pass because the original measure to legalize medical cannabis was a ballot initiative. That means the bill needs 75% support in both the House and the Senate in order to amend the original measure. “The passing of this bill would be a huge win for the patients and will help to ensure honesty and transparency for those that operate in the current medical cannabis program here in AZ,” says Treacy. “This testing bill is also written with legislative intent to cover any and all future adult use or recreational use legislative laws or ballot initiatives. We hope to have a final verdict on this bill by end of this week or early next.”
The increasing appeal and public acceptance of medical and recreational cannabis has increased the focus on the possible food safety hazards of cannabis-infused products. Foodborne illnesses from edible consumption have become more commonplace, causing auditors to focus on the various stages of the supply chain to ensure that companies are identifying and mitigating risks throughout their operations. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans developed and monitored within a cannabis ERP software solution play an essential role in reducing common hazards in a market currently lacking federal regulation.
What are cannabis-infused products?
Cannabis infusions come in a variety of forms including edibles (food and beverages), tinctures (drops applied in the mouth), sprays (applied under the tongue), powders (dissolved into liquids) and inhalers. Manufacturing of these products resembles farm-to-fork manufacturing processes common in the food and beverage industry, in which best practices for compliance with food safety regulations have been established. Anticipated regulations in the seed-to-sale marketplace and consumer expectations are driving cannabis infused product manufacturers to adopt safety initiatives to address audit concerns.
What are auditors targeting in the cannabis space?
The cannabis auditing landscape encompasses several areas of focus to ensure companies have standard operating procedures (SOP’s) in place. These areas include:
Product development – including risk analysis and release
Accurate labeling – allergen statements and potency
Product sampling – pathogenic indicator and heavy metal testing
Water and air quality – accounting for residual solvents, yeasts and mold
Pest control – pesticides and contamination
In addition, auditors commonly access the reliability of suppliers, quality of ingredients, sanitary handling of materials, cleanliness of facilities, product testing and cross-contamination concerns in the food and beverage industry, making these also important in cannabis manufacturers’ safety plans.
How a HACCP plan can help
Whether you are cultivating, harvesting, extracting or infusing cannabis into edible products, it is important to engage in proactive measures in hazard management, which include a HACCP plan developed by a company’s safety team. A HACCP plan provides effective procedures that protect consumers from hazards inherent in the production and distribution of cannabis-infused products – including biological, chemical and physical dangers. With the lack of federal regulation in the marketplace, it is recommended that companies adopt these best practices to reduce the severity and likelihood of compromised food safety.
Automating processes and documenting critical control points within an ERP solution prevents hazards before food safety is compromised. Parameters determined within the ERP system are utilized for identification of potential hazards before further contamination can occur. Applying best practices historically used by food and beverage manufacturers provides an enhanced level of food safety protocols to ensure quality, consistency and safety of consumables.
Hazards of cannabis products by life-cycle and production stage
Since the identification of hazards is the first step in HACCP plan development, it is important to identify potential issues at each stage. For cannabis-infused products, these include cultivation, harvesting, extraction and edibles production. Auditors expect detailed documentation of HACCP steps taken to mitigate hazards through the entire seed-to-sale process, taking into account transactions of cannabis co-products and finished goods at any stage.
Cultivation– In this stage, pesticides, pest contamination and heavy metals are of concern and should be adequately addressed. Listeria, E. coli, Salmonella and other bacteria can also be introduced during the grow cycle requiring that pathogenic indicator testing be conducted to ensure a bacteria-free environment.
Harvesting– Yeast and mold (aflatoxins) are possible during the drying and curing processes. Due to the fact that a minimal amount of moisture is optimal for prevention, testing for water activity is essential during harvesting.
Extraction – Residual solvents such as butane and ethanol are hazards to be addressed during extraction, as they are byproducts of the process and can be harmful. Each state has different allowable limits and effective testing is a necessity to prevent consumer exposure to dangerous chemical residues.
Edibles– Hazards in cannabis-infused manufacturing are similar to other food and beverage products and should be treated as such. A risk assessment should be completed for every ingredient (i.e. flour, eggs, etc.), with inherent hazards or allergens identified and a plan for addressing approved supplier lists, obtaining quality ingredients, sanitary handling of materials and cross-contamination.
Following and documenting the HACCP plan through all of the stages is essential, including a sampling testing plan that represents the beginning, middle and end of each cannabis infused product. As the last and most important step before products are introduced to the market, finished goods testing is conducted to ensure goods are safe for consumption. All information is recorded efficiently within a streamlined ERP solution that provides real-time data to stakeholders across the organization.
Besides hazards that are specific to each stage in the manufacturing of cannabis-infused products, there are recurring common procedures throughout the seed-to-sale process that can be addressed using current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP’s). cGMPs provide preventative measures for clean work environments, training, establishing SOPs, detecting product deviations and maintaining reliable testing. Ensuring that employees are knowledgeable of potential hazards throughout the stages is essential.Lacking, inadequate or undocumented training in these areas are red flags for auditors who subscribe to the philosophy of “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.” Training, re-training (if necessary) and documented information contained within cannabis ERP ensures that companies are audit-ready.
The importance of proper labeling in the cannabis space cannot be understated as it is a key issue related to product inconsistency in the marketplace. Similar to the food and beverage industry, accurate package labeling, including ingredient and allergen statements, should reflect the product’s contents. Adequate labeling to identify cannabis products and detailed dosing information is essential as unintentional ingestion is a reportable foodborne illness. Integrating an ERP solution with quality control checks and following best practices ensures product labeling remains compliant and transparent in the marketplace.
Due to the inherent hazards of cannabis-infused products, it’s necessary for savvy cannabis companies to employ the proper tools to keep their products and consumers safe. Utilizing an ERP solution that effectively manages HACCP plans meets auditing requirements and helps to keep cannabis operations one step ahead of the competition.
According to a press release published earlier this week, PathogenDx, Inc., is expanding their product portfolio and doing some rebranding. The DNA-based pathogen detection testing provider, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, produces microarray testing platforms for the cannabis, agriculture and food and beverage industries. Their rapid testing technology can reportedly identify and detect 50+ pathogens all in a single test, including common pathogens such as E. Coli, Salmonella and Aspergillus.
DetectX – Tests for the presence of pathogenic microbial organisms down to a single organism, at less than 0.1 CFU/gram for state regulated compliance. Test 96 or more samples a day for multiple state mandated microbial pathogens, with product safety certainty delivered in 6 hours, far more rapid than current industry standards of 72 hours or more.
QuantX – The world’s first quantification microarray test for Cannabis. This test measures the microbial load in a sample, while also providing discrimination of the organism content relative to testing standards. Regulatory agencies will now have the opportunity to improve microbial testing standards to ensure safety.
EnviroX – With a single swab, one can identify 50+ species and classes of microbes, with quick-turn results, by simply swabbing a grower/cultivation facility surfaces and vents. Submit, identify, and remediate. It’s that simple to mitigate risk to high-value crops.
PhytoX – Coming in Summer of 2019,PathogenDx will introduce the ultra-rapid, easy plant pathogen test to detect powdery mildew, gray mold, mites and other microbial bugs that can become destructive threats to one’s crop. Acquire results in 6 hours to intercept and redress infestation that can destroy one’s yield.
According to CEO and Co-Founder Milan Patel, they want their technology to set the standard for product safety testing. “We’re making the accurate testing of cannabis, food and agriculture faster, more definitive and less expensive with trackable results benefitting growers, producers, regulators and consumers worldwide,” says Patel. “Our new brand is inspired by our unique microplex array and is bright, fresh, memorable and expansive, enabling us to move from cannabis only to much larger global consumable markets where we can continue to offer new products and applications for the technology.”
The 6thAnnual Food Safety Consortium Conference & Expo will feature an entire track dedicated to cannabis. As announced in May of this year, the Cannabis Quality series will feature presentations by subject matter experts in the areas of regulations, edibles manufacturing, cannabis safety & quality as well as laboratory testing.
The Food Safety Consortium is hosted by our sister publication, Food Safety Tech, and the Cannabis Quality series will be co-hosted by Cannabis Industry Journal. A number of cannabis-focused organizations will participate in the series of talks, which are designed to help attendees better understand the cannabis edibles market, regulations surrounding the industry and standards for manufacturers. Some highlights include the following:
Ben Gelt, board chairman at the Cannabis Certification Council (CCC), will moderate a panel where leaders in the edibles market discuss supply chain, production and other difficulties in manufacturing infused products. Panelists include Leslie Siu, Founder/CEO Mother & Clone, Jenna Rice, Director of Operations at Gron and Kristen Hill, MIP Director, Native Roots Dispensary, among others. “The Cannabis Certification Council believes consumer education campaigns like #Whatsinmyweed are critical to drive standards and transparency like we see in food,” says Gelt. “What better place to discuss the food safety challenges the cannabis industry faces than the Food Safety Consortium”
Radojka Barycki, CEO of Nova Compliance, will discuss the role of food safety in the cannabis industry and identify some biological and chemical hazards in cannabis product testing in her talk, “Cannabis: A Compliance Revolution.”
Cameron Prince, vice president of regulatory affairs at The Acheson Group, will help attendees better understand key market indicators and current trends in edibles manufacturing during his talk on November 15. “With the current trend of legalizing cannabis edibles, medicinal and recreational suppliers alike are looking to quickly enter the edibles market,” says Prince. “Understanding the nuances of moving to food production relative to food safety, along with navigating the food industry’s regulatory environment will be critical to the success of these companies.”
Tim Lombardo and Marielle Weintraub, both from Covance Food Solutions, will identify common pathogens and areas where cross contamination can occur for edibles manufacturers.
The Food Safety Consortium will be held November 13–15 in Schaumburg, Illinois (just outside of Chicago). To see the full list of presenters and register for the conference, go the Food Safety Consortium’s website.
As many US States and Canadian provinces approach legalization of cannabis, the question of regulatory oversight has become a pressing issue. While public awareness is mainly focused on issues like age restrictions and impaired driving, there is another practical question to consider: should cannabis be treated as a drug or a food product when it comes to safety? In the US, FDA governs both food and drugs, but in Canada, drugs are regulated by Health Canada while food products are regulated under the CFIA.There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled
Of course, there are common issues like dosage and potency that pharmaceutical companies typically worry about as the industry is moving to classifying its products in terms of percentage of chemical composition (THC, CBD, etc. in a strain), much as we categorize alcohol products by the percentage of alcohol. However, with the exception of topical creams and ointments, many cannabis products are actually food products. Even the herb itself can be brewed into teas, added to baked goods or made into cannabis-infused butters, oils, capsules and tinctures.
As more people gain access to and ingest cannabis products, it’s only a matter of time before food safety becomes a primary concern for producers and regulators. So when it comes to food safety, what do growers, manufacturers and distributors need to consider? The fact is, it’s not that different from other food products. There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled. Continue reading below for the top four safety hazards for the cannabis industry and learn how to receive free HACCP plans to help control these hazards.
Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud
Just like any other agricultural product, improper growing conditions, handling and storage can result in mold growth, which produce aflatoxins that can cause liver cancer and other serious health problems. During storage, the danger is humidity; humidity must be monitored in storage rooms twice a day and the meter must be calibrated every month. During transportation, it is important to monitor and record temperatures in trucks. Trucks should also be cleaned weekly or as required. Products received at a cannabis facilities should be tested upon receiving and contaminated products must always be rejected, segregated and disposed of safely.
Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants
Chemical residues can be introduced at several points during the production and storage process. During growing, every facility should follow instructions for applying fertilizers and pesticides to crops. This includes waiting for a sufficient amount of time before harvesting. When fertilizer is being applied, signs must be posted. After cannabis products have been harvested, chemical controls must be in place. All chemicals should be labelled and kept in contained chemical storage when not in use to prevent contamination. Only food-grade chemicals (e.g. cleaners, sanitizers) should be used during curing, drying, trimming and storage.
Without a comprehensive food safety program, problems will inevitably arise.There is also a risk of excessive concentration of chemicals in the washing tank. As such, chemical concentrations must be monitored for. In general, water (obviously essential for the growing process) also carries risks of pathogenic bacteria like staphylococcus aureus or salmonella. For this reason, city water (which is closely controlled in most municipalities) should be used with an annual report and review. Facilities that use well water must test frequently and water samples must be tested every three months regardless.
Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations
Insects, rodents and other pests spread disease. In order to prevent infestations, a pest control program must be implemented, with traps checked monthly by a qualified contractor and verified by a designated employee. It is also necessary to have a building procedure (particularly during drying), which includes a monthly inspection, with no holes or gaps allowed. No product should leave the facility uncovered to prevent fecal matter and other hazards from coming into contact with the product. Contamination can also occur during storage on pallets, so pallets must be inspected for punctures in packaging material.
Furthermore, even the best controlled facility can fall victim to the shortcomings of their suppliers. Procedures must be in place to ensure that suppliers are complying with pest and building control procedures, among others. Certifications should be acquired and tracked upon renewal.
Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling
Employee training is key for any food facility. When employees are handling products, the risk of cross-contamination is highest. Facilities must have GMP and personnel hygiene policies in place, with training conducted upon hiring and refreshed monthly. Employees must be encouraged to stay home when sick and instructed to wear proper attire (gloves, hair nets, etc.), while glass, jewelry and outside food must not be allowed inside the facility. Tools used during harvesting and other stages may also carry microorganisms if standard cleaning procedures are not in place and implemented correctly by employees.
As the cannabis industry grows, and regulatory bodies like the FDA and CFIA look to protect public safety, we expect that more attention will be paid to other food safety issues like packaging safety (of inks and labels), allergen control and others. In the production of extracts, for example, non-food safe solvents could be used or extracts can be mixed with ingredients that have expiration dates, like coconut oil. There is one area in which the cannabis industry may lead the way, however. More and more often, risks of food terrorism, fraud and intentional adulteration are gripping the food industry as the global food chain becomes increasingly complex. It’s safe to say that security at cannabis facilities is probably unparalleled.
All of this shows that cannabis products, especially edibles (and that includes capsules and tinctures), should be treated the same as other food products simply because they have the same kinds of hazards. Without a comprehensive food safety program (that includes a plan, procedures, training, monitoring and verification), problems will inevitably arise.
The cannabis industry is probably more informed about patients and consumers of their products than the general food industry. In addition to routine illness and stress in the population, cannabis consumers are fighting cancer, HIV/AIDS and other immune disorders. Consumers who are already ill are immunocompromised. Transplant recipients purposely have their immune system suppressed in the process of a successful transplant. These consumers have pre-existing conditions where the immune system is weakened. If the immunocompromised consumer is exposed to viral or bacterial pathogens through cannabis products, the consumer is more likely to suffer from a viral infection or foodborne illness as a secondary illness to the primary illness. In the case of consumers with weakened immune systems, it could literally kill them.Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments.
The cannabis industry shoulders great responsibility in both the medical and adult use markets. In addition to avoiding chemical hazards and determining the potency of the product, the cannabis industry must manufacture products safe for consumption. There are three ways to control pathogens and ensure a safe product: prevent them from entering, kill them and control their growth.
Prevent microorganisms from getting in
Think about everything that is outdoors that will physically come in a door to your facility. Control the quality of ingredients, packaging, equipment lubricants, cleaning agents and sanitizers. Monitor employee hygiene. Next, you control everything within your walls: employees, materials, supplies, equipment and the environment. You control receiving, employee entrance, storage, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. At every step in the process, your job is to prevent the transfer of pathogens into the product from these sources.
The combination of raw materials to manufacture your product is likely to include naturally occurring pathogens. Traditional heat methods like roasting and baking will kill most pathogens. Remember, sterility is not the goal. The concern is that a manufacturer uses heat to achieve organoleptic qualities like color and texture, but the combination of time and temperature may not achieve safety. It is only with a validated process that safety is confirmed. If we model safety after what is required of food manufacturers by the Food and Drug Administration, validation of processes that control pathogens is required. In addition to traditional heat methods, non-thermal methods for control of pathogens includes irradiation and high pressure processing and are appropriate for highly priced goods, e.g. juice. Killing is achieved in the manufacturing environment and on processing equipment surfaces after cleaning and by sanitizing.
If you have done everything reasonable to stop microorganisms from getting in the product and you have a validated step to kill pathogens, you may still have spoilage microorganisms in the product. It is important that all pathogens have been eliminated. Examples of pathogens include Salmonella, pathogenic Escherichia coli, also called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria monocytogenes. These three common pathogens are easily destroyed by proper heat methods. Despite steps taken to kill pathogens, it is theoretically possible a pathogen is reintroduced after the kill step and before packaging is sealed at very low numbers in the product. Doctors do not know how many cells are required for a consumer to get ill, and the immunocompromised consumer is more susceptible to illness. Lab methods for the three pathogens mentioned are designed to detect very low cell numbers. Packaging and control of growth factors will stop pathogens from growing in the product, if present.
Control the growth of microorganisms
These growth factors will control the growth of pathogens, and you can use the factors to control spoilage microbes as well. To grow, microbes need the same things we do: a comfortable temperature, water, nutrients (food), oxygen, and a comfortable level of acid. In the lab, we want to find the pathogen, so we optimize these factors for growth. When you control growth in your product, one hurdle may be enough to stop growth; sometimes multiple hurdles are needed in combination. Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments. They are at the bottom of the ocean under pressure. They are in hot springs at the temperature of boiling water. The diversity is immense. Luckily, we can focus on the growth factors for human pathogens, like Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Temperature. Human pathogens prefer to grow at the temperature of the human body. In manufacture, keep the time a product is in the range of 40oF to 140oF as short as possible. You control pathogens when your product is at very hot or very cold temperatures. Once the product cools after a kill step in manufacturing, it is critical to not reintroduce a pathogen from the environment or personnel. Clean equipment and packaging play key roles in preventing re-contamination of the product.
Water. At high temperatures as in baking or roasting, there is killing, but there is also the removal of water. In the drying process that is not at high temperature, water is removed to stop the growth of mold. This one hurdle is all that is needed. Even before mold is controlled, bacterial and yeast growth will stop. Many cannabis candies are safe, because water is not available for pathogen growth. Packaging is key to keep moisture out of the product.
Nutrients. In general, nutrients are going to be available for pathogen growth and cannot be controlled. In most products nutrients cannot be removed, however, recipes can be adjusted. Recipes for processed food add preservatives to control growth. In cannabis as in many plants, there may be natural compounds which act as preservatives.
Oxygen. With the great diversity of bacteria, there are bacteria that require the same oxygen we breathe, and mold only grows in oxygen. There are bacteria that only grow in the absence of oxygen, e.g. the bacteria responsible for botulism. And then there are the bacteria and yeast in between, growing with or without oxygen. Unfortunately, most human pathogens will grow with or without oxygen, but slowly without oxygen. The latter describes the growth of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. While a package seals out air, the growth is very slow. Once a package is opened and the product is exposed to air, growth accelerates.
Acid. Fermented or acidified products have a higher level of acid than non-acid products; the acid acts as a natural preservative. The more acid, the more growth is inhibited. Generally, acid is a hurdle to growth, however and because of diversity, some bacteria prefer acid, like probiotics which are non-pathogenic. Some pathogens, like E. coli, have been found to grow in low acid foods, e.g. juice, even though the preference is for non-acidic environments.
I have been studying microorganisms for over 35 years, and the elusive critters still fascinate me! Here in Microbiology 101, I write about the foundation of knowledge on which all microbiologists build. You may have a general interest in microbiology or have concerns in your operation. By understanding microbiology, you understand the diversity of microorganisms, their source, control of microorganisms and their importance.
The term microbiology covers every living being we cannot see with the naked eye. The smallest microbe is a virus. Next in size are the bacteria, then yeast and mold cells, and the largest microbes are the protozoans. The tiny structure of a virus may be important in the plant pathology of cannabis, but will not grow in concentrates or infused products. A virus is not living, until it storms the gate of a living cell and overtakes the functions within the cell. Viruses are the number one cause of foodborne illness, with the number one virus called Norovirus. Think stomach flu. Think illness on cruise ships. Viruses are a food service problem and can be prevented by requiring employees to report sickness, have good personal hygiene including good hand washing, and, as appropriate, wear gloves. Following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) is critical in preventing the transfer of viruses to a product where the consumer can be infected.
The largest microbial cell is the protozoan. They are of concern in natural water sources, but like viruses, will not grow in cannabis products. Control water quality through GMPs, and you control protozoans. Viruses and protozoans will not be further discussed here. Bacteria, yeast and mold are the focus of further discussion. As a food microbiologist, my typical application of this information is in the manufacturing of food. Because Microbiology 101 is a general article on microbiology, you can apply the information to growing, harvesting, drying, manufacture of infused products and dispensing.
It is not possible to have sterile products. Even the canning process of high temperature for an extended time allows the survival of resistant bacterial spores. Astronauts take dehydrated food into space, and soldiers receive MREs; both still contain microbes. Sterility is never the goal. So, what is normal? Even with the highest standards, it is normal to have microbes in your products. Your goal is to eliminate illness-causing microorganisms, i.e. pathogens. Along the way, you will decrease spoilage microbes too, making a product with higher quality.
Yeast and mold were discussed on CIJ in a previous article, Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know. Fuzzy mold seen on the top of food left in the refrigerator too long is a quality issue, not a safety issue. Mold growth is a problem on damaged cannabis plants or cuttings and may produce mycotoxin, a toxic chemical hazard. Following Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) will control mold growth. Once the plant is properly dried, mold will not grow and produce toxin. Proper growing, handling and drying prevents mycotoxins. Like mold, growth of yeast is a quality issue, not a safety issue. As yeast grow, they produce acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. While these fermentation products are unwanted, they are not injurious. I am aware that some states require cannabis-infused products to be alcohol-free, but that is not a safety issue discussed here.
What are the sources of microorganisms?
People. Employees who harvest cannabis may transfer microorganisms to the plant. Later, employees may be the source of microbes at the steps of trimming, drying, transfer or portioning, extract processing, infused product manufacture and packaging.
Ingredients, Supplies and Materials. Anything you purchase may be a source of microorganisms. Procure quality merchandise. Remember the saying, “you get what you pay for.”
Environment. Starting with the outdoors, microbes come from wind, soil, pests, bird droppings and water. When plants are harvested outdoors or indoors, microbes come from the tools and bins. Maintain clean growing and harvesting tools in good working condition to minimize contamination with microbes. For any processing, microbes come from air currents, use of water, and all surfaces in the processing environment from dripping overhead pipes to floor drains and everything in between.
In Part 2 I will continue to discuss the diversity of microorganisms, and future articles will cover Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and food safety in more detail. What concerns do you have at each step of operations? Are you confident in your employees and their handling of the product? As each state works to ensure public health, cannabis-infused products will receive the same, if not more, scrutiny as non-cannabis food and beverages. With an understanding and control of pathogens, you can focus on providing your customers with your highest quality product.
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