A thorough cannabis product development process goes far beyond extracting and packaging. Performing advanced analytical testing at each and every stage allows producers to know the quantity, quality and behaviour of compounds in samples. Here are the four key stages from flower to consumption.
Stage 1: Flower
Developing a quality cannabis product begins with knowing the composition of compounds in your starting material. The best analytical tests utilize a metabolomics approach. Metabolomics is a suite of techniques that include a variety of instruments to run samples through in order to receive compositional data. In this stage, LC-qTOF and GC-MS are the best instruments to track all the compounds in the starting plant material. Essentially, metabolomics establishes a fingerprint of the compounds in a plant sample. This is beneficial because producers have to understand how their chosen cannabis plant differs from other cultivars and how it would potentially behave in their desired end product formulations.
Stage 2: Concentrate
After the plant material has gone through an extraction process, producers want to know precisely what is in the extract. Are there compounds that should not be there and are all the desired compounds present? The best way to test the quality of cannabis oils is again to use metabolomics (e.g. via LC-qTOF). This test reveals all the compounds in the sample in order to help the producer determine the purity and consistency of molecules beyond just THC and CBD.
When testing cannabis isolates, it is best to use NMR spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction. NMR characterizes and assesses the purity of single compounds or mixtures in solution or solid state. X-ray diffraction provides information about the crystal structure, chemical composition and the physical properties of the cannabis sample to help the producer prove the identification of desired compounds. Establishing that the concentrates are pure and aligned with what the producer intended to extract is key in this stage of product development.
Stage 3: Formulation
Designing an appropriate drug delivery formula is a universal challenge producers face at this stage of product development. Where nanoemulsion or other carrier approaches are being used, formulation characterization allows producers to understand how their active compounds behave in simulated physiological environments as well as how stable their products are over time. Specifically, nanoparticle sizing and assessing size changes over time can help a formulation scientist ensure the highest quality product is being mixed, and that the desired effect will be imparted on the consumer/patient.
Stage 4: Smoke/Vapor
Many producers might not consider this final stage, but it is critical for all inhalable cannabis products and devices. Using a smoke analyzer and metabolomics testing can identify and quantify compounds present within the formed smoke or vapor from pre-roll joints to vape devices. This is not only important for preventing the production of toxic by-products, but it can help producers create an optimal smoking experience for consumers.
One area that is often an afterthought is quality compliance testing. Despite a number of groups using the required tests well during development, many forget to continue the same robust testing on end products. In the current cannabis product development landscape, there is little guidance on how compliance testing should be conducted on every product “batch.” With these advanced analytical tests, producers can confidently develop compliant, stable and quality cannabis products.
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
Emerald Scientific now offers their customers PerkinElmer products, like their QSight® 420 Triple Quad system LC/MS, the Titan MPS™ Microwave Sample Preparation System, the Clarus® SQ 8 Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) and the Flexar™ High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) system. This partnership also allows Emerald Scientific customers to utilize the PerkinElmer analytical methods and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for cannabis and hemp testing. That includes SOPs for things like sample preparation, acquisition methods and consumable use. They’ll also be able to shop for lab products like PerkinElmer’s chromatography columns, vials and sample prep products.
According to Greg Sears, vice president and general manager, Food and Organic Mass Spectrometry at PerkinElmer, the cannabis testing market is exploding and this will help labs get their equipment and necessities all in the same place. “With the cannabis and hemp markets continuing to grow rapidly and regulations strengthening, labs increasingly need streamlined access to best-in-class, user-friendly testing solutions geared toward the unique requirements of the industry,” says Sears. ““This collaboration with Emerald Scientific brings together leading cannabis analysis offerings in one place to help labs start up and expand more efficiently. In addition, we can build on the work we have done with Emerald around testing standardization which is important for the science of the industry.”
Kirsten Blake, Vice President of Emerald Scientific, says they are really excited about the partnership. “As regulations become more challenging, laboratory competition intensifies, and the science of the industry receives increasing focus, it is essential to align with organizations dedicated to improving both the quality and throughput of analytics,” says Blake. “After working with PerkinElmer to inform, educate, and advance the cannabis science industry around best practices, we see them as the industry leader for providing analytical instrumentation, methods and SOP’s. By adding their complementary solutions to our existing portfolio, we can now deliver complete packaged analytical solutions to the cannabis and hemp industries.”
Back in September, Nevada officials announced a state-wide investigation into how products with high levels of yeast and mold were sold in dispensaries and alleged that labs could possibly be manipulating potency numbers on certificates of analysis. Then in late November, regulators suspended the license for Certified Ag Labs, a cannabis testing laboratory based in Sparks, Nevada.
Nevada regulators issued a press release alleging that products tested at Certified Ag Labs “may be labeled incorrectly and could contain a different level of THC than what is listed on product packaging.” Randy Gardner, a managing member at Certified Ag Labs told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that investigators showed up to his lab in October twice to collect samples for follow up tests.
After that, Gardner fired back. In a statement sent out shortly after, Gardner said they were accused of lying about THC test results to the Department of Taxation (the agency that regulates cannabis in Nevada).
“The state’s decision to suspend and potentially revoke our license came without warning,” says Gardner’s statement. “This accusation is as baseless as it is appalling, as we have been completely transparent with the state at all times. We take this matter very seriously, and based on my over 30 years of laboratory experience we believe these allegations unconscionable at best.”
“The state came in for their audit then came back and suspended our license without us having a chance to further clarify or refute their findings,” the statement reads. “We hope the state appreciates that a business and its employees’ livelihoods and reputations are at stake. We are pursuing our options and all legal and equitable redress will be on the table.”
The Department of Taxation, which isn’t releasing any more information currently, says they found “inaccurate and misleading” potency test results, once they tested the samples collected from Certified Ag Labs.
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.
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
Earlier this month, Colorado cannabis producer Herbal Wellness LLC recalled dozens of batches of cannabis due to positive yeast and mold tests. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued a health and safety advisory following the news of microbial contamination.
The Colorado Department of Revenue then identified batches of both medical and recreational cannabis produced by Herbal Wellness that were not even tested for microbial contaminants, which is a requirement for licensed producers in the state. Just a few days later, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) issued a bulletin announcing their plans to conduct random tests at dozens of dispensaries.
“In the coming weeks, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) will be conducting an assessment in approximately 25 retail marijuana stores to evaluate contaminants in products on store shelves,” reads the bulletin. “DDPHE has worked with epidemiological partners at Denver Public Heath to create the assessment methodology. Participating stores will be randomly identified for inclusion in the assessment.”
“Current METRC inventory lists for each store will be used to randomly identify samples of flower, trim/shake, and pre-rolls. Each sample will be tested for pesticides and total yeast and mold by a state- and ISO-certified marijuana testing facility. Results of their respective testing will be shared with each facility and will also be shared broadly within a write-up of results.”
EVIO Labs Florida received their ISO 17025:2005 accreditation in February of 2018. Last week, EVIO Labs Florida announced via a press release that they completed their ISO 17025:2017 accreditation and received a certification from AOAC International. The accreditation helped them to further expand their testing scope to shelf life and stability testing, the ability to detect harmful bacteria and calculate degradation in samples.
The certification that they received from AOAC helps verify their ability to conduct accurate and fair 3rd party testing, meeting Florida’s requirements for the market. Back when the laboratory first started in 2017, there were no requirements for lab testing cannabis products under Florida’s regulations.
Upon expanding to their Gainesville location in November last year and getting accredited to ISO 17025:2017 last week, EVIO Labs Florida expects the new location to be compliant and operational by April 2019, in preparation for the state’s new regulations. “Our team has worked diligently to maintain our stance as the Gold Standard in Cannabis Testing,” says Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Lab Florida. “The ability to obtain the recent ISO 17025:2017 and AOAC certification is a testament to our dedication in maintaining public safety and product integrity in an ever-growing industry.”
Martinez is also presenting during the 2ndAnnual Cannabis Labs Virtual Conference on April 2, where he will discuss how EVIO Labs Florida began as a laboratory and how they were able to expand to a second location and grow their market presence in Florida. Click here to register for his talk.
Whether you’re a small business owner or a production manager of a large manufacturer, if you’ve ever experienced problems with your product labels you know it can quickly turn into a serious issue until that problem is resolved. From the time it’s applied to your product all the way to the POS (Point of Sale), labels always seem to be the least significant part of the production process- until something goes wrong. And when it does go wrong, it can create major branding issues and cost your company tens of thousands of dollars due to hefty supply chain late penalties and/or even government fines.
This article aims to provide insight as to how a company like Label Solutions Inc. helps businesses and manufacturers create new labels for their products as well as what to look for should you experience label failure at your retail locations. Topics discussed in this article do not cover all possible issues, but these common mistakes will hopefully help you better understand how creating a product label works, and how to possibly prevent your own problems in the future.
Mistake #1: Not Understanding the Importance Between the “Construction” Versus the “Artwork & Compliance” of the Label
This may seem like common sense, but it is often overlooked. Especially when dealing with fast-track projects.
Construction of the Label is the material selected and production process to produce the label. When creating a new label from the ground up, it is important to factor in how your product will be produced, necessary shipping and supply chain needs, how it is stored in inventory and how it will be presented at the POS. Understanding what environments your product will be exposed to throughout its life cycle will give you an advantage when approving substrate material, inks, and the strength of adhesive that might be necessary for your application.
The Artwork & Compliance of the Label refers to the overall design of the label, artwork, customer messaging, bar codes and regulatory requirements you need to follow in order to avoid serious government fines that might relate to your industry (Referring to agencies such as OSHA, DOT, and the FDA).In most cases the construction of the label does not apply to the compliance of the label.
Most label providers do not have the in-house expertise to offer compliance assistance. Although it is still the manufacturer who is liable for all final artwork approvals on their product, label providers that do offer advisory services can help update label content when regulatory changes are enacted. This “safety net” can save your company from extra production costs and, potentially, excessive legal time and material costs. In short, you should always review final label artwork approvals with your compliance team and/or legal expert, but it never hurts to have a “safety net” to help eliminate unnecessary orders or production delays.
In most cases the construction of the label does not apply to the compliance of the label. An exception to this statement would be industries such as the electronics industry that use UL (Underwriter Laboratories) labels that must meet UL specifications and be produced under recognized UL files. In other words, the compliance of a UL label is the construction of the label.
Best Method Approach: An excellent example of companies that understand the difference between the Construction vs. Artwork & Compliance of the label would be the compressed gas industry. Gas suppliers and distributors require long term regulatory compliant labels on their cylinders and micro-bulk tanks. These gas tanks are used in a wide variety of industries such as for manufacturing, welding, medical procedures, and specialty gas mixes for the micro-electronics industry.
The compressed gas industry requires that their labels follow strict, up-to-date OHSA and DOT compliance requirements. As for the construction of the label, it is common practice that the label remains legible on the cylinder for an average of five years. The 5-year duration is due to the millions of tanks that are in circulation throughout the US and Canada. What’s more, each label is produced to adhere to the cylinder’s metal surface during extreme outdoor weather conditions such as fluctuating temperatures, freezing rain, high winds, and direct sunlight year-round.
Mistake #2: Applying Labels Incorrectly to Your Products
Whether the label is applied to the product surface by hand or automatically with a label applicator, the label itself may not be applied level or evenly. Besides this being a major branding issue, this could also affect how the bar codes are scanned and could eventually impact your delivery times while trying to correct a batch.
Best Method Approach: There are construction alternatives that you can choose from to potentially reduce the impact of incorrect label application. For example, products with certain label adhesives allow your production team to reposition the label within a few minutes before the tack completely sets to the surface. The type of surface (cardboard, metal, plastic, glass, etc.) and the type of adhesive will determine how much time your production team will have before the tack sets.
The best practice is to apply labels prior to filling the bottles and cans as opposed to filling first and then applying the label in your production line.A good example of this best practice can be seen in the beverage market. Whether the client produces a uniquely crafted beer, or a rare ingredient infused into a new health drink, labels that are auto-applied to bottles and cans will sometimes experience equipment tension issues that need to be recalibrated. Once labels are applied off-alignment, a delayed tack setting can allow the label to be quickly repositioned by hand when needed. The best practice is to apply labels prior to filling the bottles and cans as opposed to filling first and then applying the label in your production line. The reason, excess spillage from filling can interfere with most adhesives.
This same repositionable adhesive is excellent to keep in mind for large equipment production assembly lines that apply prime (branding) labels and warning labels by hand. Even with large wide-format labels, the adhesive tack can be formulated so your employees have a few minutes to adjust, straighten, and smooth away trapped air bubbles once it has been placed on the surface. Knowing you have this option can help reduce label inventory waste, additional production material wastes and avoid delaying production time. More importantly, this option keeps your brand and your warning/instructional labels looking fresh.
Mistake #3: Not Sharing Your Production Run Schedules with Your Label ProviderSupply chain management (SCM) models are excellent examples of the best approach.
Some of Label Solutions’ largest accounts have the most efficient real-time tracking supply chain models in North America, but even they cannot avoid sudden increased orders for their products stemming from high customer demand or similar issues. It is a good problem to have, but it is a problem, nonetheless. Manufacturers utilize supply chain management tools to notify their suppliers of their monthly order forecasts, which in turn helps suppliers manage their materials and deliveries more efficiently.
On the other side of the spectrum, when small businesses share their production schedules with a supplier it means that both parties (the manufacturer and label provider) understand when to expect higher or lower order quantities each month. Label providers should back date their label production schedules, so they have the materials available to handle your busier months while ensuring on-time deliveries.
Best Method Approach: Supply chain management (SCM) models are excellent examples of the best approach. Although SCM’s are designed for scalability and real-time tracking, the benefit to you also helps your label supplier. For example, our large retail and industrial manufacturing clients notify the Label Solutions team to produce their labels according to their Supply Chain portal demand schedules. This, in turn, allows label suppliers to allocate production time and materials more efficiently for your last-minute rush orders.
Smaller companies can take a much more simplified approach (without the SCM tracking) to help their suppliers manage their orders – even if they do not use supply chain management. A simple Excel report of production runs over a 12-month time frame is ideal. If your label provider does not already practice this or similar methodology, it might be time to start looking for a more proactive label provider. If you’re unsure you want to share your information, then you might consider requiring your label provider to sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement).
Mistake #4: Not Accepting Alternative Sizes of the Label to Allow for Better Pricing
If your product needs a label with, for example, a dimension of 5.25 X 6.75 inches, there might be a much better price point offered to you if you’re open to switching to a slightly different dimension label of, say, 5 X 7 inches. Obviously, you need to make sure the new dimension would fit your product(s) and work with your production line. But, if alternate dimensions are within the scope of the project, a modified SKU could potentially cut down on cost and production time.
Best Method Approach: You might not have the time or ability to change your label if you already market that product in retail stores. But, if you are changing your branding, creating a new style of label, or releasing a completely new product, this is the ideal time to consider implementing better continuity between your products. This could include elements such as matching colors and label/packaging design.
In addition to updating your SKU’s, this might also be an opportunity for your company to consolidate multiple products onto a universal label size. By applying the same sized labels to multiple SKU’s, you can increase efficiency regarding repeated label orders, especially for label printers that use digital printers. Combine this approach with your expected annual quantity estimates and you’ll be positioned for very efficient ordering options as your company grows.
Editor’s Note: We’ll cover the next four most common labeling mistakes in Part Two coming next week. Stay tuned for more!
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