On August 29, 2019, Health Canada finally published a guidance document on the official interpretation of Part 5 of the Cannabis Regulations concerning “Good Production Practices” that comes into force just seven weeks later on October 17, 2019. For those watching with the experience of the food industry, it is safe to say that few license holders fully appreciate the magnitude of the new requirements and fewer yet are prepared for what will be required in less than two weeks.
An Uncertain Road to Cannabis Compliance
Since Canada legalized recreational cannabis in October 2018, there has been considerable uncertainty about the road to compliance in this totally new legal market. Health Canada faced the daunting challenge of defining the requirements for a whole new industry, and so they were understandably silent on the issue of Part 5 until this guide was published in August.
Many larger companies eager to get their foot in the door of the multi-billion dollar industry tried to be proactive in anticipating impending government regulations by seeking Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certifications. This would likely have been fine under the previous regulations, which were myopically focused on ensuring that product wasn’t diverted from or to the black market. With the legalization of edibles only one year away, however, it was obvious to those in the food industry that GMP was just not going to be enough. Gentle prodding at various speaking engagements on our part wasn’t enough to convince these companies to seek higher levels of certification or at least to proactively develop the organizational culture required to support a higher-level program.
The Inevitable Necessity of Food Safety
It was clear to us that since edibles are essentially a food product, safety necessarily had to become a primary focus. This reality has, in fact, materialized in section 5 of the new guide, which outlines prescriptive requirements that are very well developed and require that companies develop a complete set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for sanitation, employee hygiene, testing, inventory, pest control and more. Furthermore, cannabis companies must be able to produce documentation that proves they are actually following these procedures.
There are many, many other requirements that also apply, but the really interesting ones are those related to hazard analysis (5.2.13) and preventive control plans (5.2.14): manufacturers who produce extracts or edibles must undertake hazard analyses on each input, processing step and traffic flow. The language will be familiar to those who have been exposed to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) methodology. HACCP is the standard in the food industry and goes far beyond simple GMP.
Very much like HACCP, license holders will be required to analyze each biological, chemical and physical hazard, determine controls, identify critical control point, along will all the validation, reassessment, verification and deviation protocols required. Interestingly, the fraud and bioterrorism hazard types that have recently been introduced for the food industry have been omitted, presumably an oversight that will be rectified in future versions.
How to Catch Up Fast with Tech
Satisfying these regulations using traditional manual methods takes months or even years in some cases. Today in Canada, license holders have only weeks to get their facilities to compliance, and the government is quick to crack down on any mistakes. The only way to possibly meet this deadline is to start yesterday and use the best tools you can find to expedite the process.
Those who have been busy implementing GMP programs are going to have to look far beyond their current objectives. Those just starting out should build with these requirements front of mind, both to satisfy inspectors and auditors and also to avoid the pain of the organizational change required to move to a higher level of quality and safety.
Ultimately, these changes will be of benefit to society and provide a competitive advantage to those who can move the fastest, especially when major retail chains become the dominant wholesale market. My advice is to start working on your HACCP-based compliance program immediately and, if you’re in Canada, seek a high-level certification like SQF as soon as possible.
It’s fair to say that the food industry’s recent experiences with more stringent regulations clearly foreshadow what will be required for the cannabis industry. Right now – when the margin of error is razor thin – is the time for companies to make the decisive move and focus on their success – and survival.
Now that governments are legalizing cannabis around the world, the question looms for cannabis businesses seeking legitimacy in the new industry: what safety standards should apply? This question is more difficult as different jurisdictions grapple with defining and implementing legal requirements and struggle to keep up with the pace of growth.
For visionary cannabis business, it makes sense to anticipate requirements – not only from governments, but also from consumers and partners. Most regulations currently focus on security and basic health issues but, in the long-term, the industry that may offer the best model for cannabis businesses isn’t pharmaceuticals, but food. Cannabis (especially edibles) share similar hazards and traceability challenges with food products, so taking the lead from the food industry will be much more applicable and could offer greater benefits.
Companies that achieve the highest and most flexible certification will enjoy a crucial competitive advantage when it comes to winning market share, popularity and consumer trust. Let’s take a quick look at the different options of food safety (and quality) certifications that cannabis businesses may consider. But first, let’s clarify two important definitions that are necessary to understand the food industry.
Basic Concepts from the Food Industry
The first acronym you should be aware of is GFSI, the Global Food Safety Initiative. GFSI is a food industry-driven global collaboration body created to advance food safety. When it comes to understanding GFSI, the important part to note is that certifications recognized by GFSI (like SQF, FSSC 22000, and BRC) are universally accepted. Companies operating under GFSI-recognized certifications open the most doors to the most markets, providing the highest potential for growth. For this reason, cannabis companies should be aware of and seriously consider seeking GFSI certifications
Secondly, many food safety programs are built around Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP. While many people may talk about HACCP like it’s a certification in and of itself, it is not actually a certification like the others on this list, but rather a methodology that helps companies systematically identify and control biological, chemical, and physical hazards that may arise during food production, handling, and distribution. Companies that adopt this methodology end up with a HACCP plan, which must then be followed at all times to avoid and address health and safety issues. It’s often required for food businesses and is generally required in most of the world, except where ISO 22000 is more common, primarily in Europe and countries whose primary export market is European. Since HACCP plans are also incorporated into most of the other achievable certifications, developing a HACCP program early will build a strong foundation for higher levels of certification.
Certifications for the Cannabis Industry
Now that we understand the basics of GFSI and HACCP, we can see how the certifications that have been developed by and for the food industry may apply to cannabis companies – and which you should consider necessary for your business.
GMP: Good Manufacturing Practice Certification
GMP (or sometimes cGMP) certification requires that companies abide by a set of good manufacturing processes for food and beverage products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, dietary supplements and medical devices. Since it really only covers basic sanitation and employee hygiene, it is considered the lowest level of certification in the industry. It is not recognized by GFSI, but GFSI does require all the standard benchmarks of a GMP be met before granting GFSI certification.
While GMP certification is often required, it is far below the standard that should be upheld by any serious businesses. It doesn’t cover many of the different types of hazards associated with food production – that I have argued will become increasingly relevant to cannabis producers – and doesn’t provide a systematic approach to identifying and controlling hazards like a HACCP program would. It’s really just about providing the basic procedures and checks to ensure that the facility is clean and that employees aren’t contaminating the products.
Final Verdict: Recommended, but as the bare minimum. GMP is not sufficient on its own to adequately control the risk of recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks, and it limits a company’s market potential because it lacks the GFSI worldwide stamp of approval.
Some companies consider GMP certification a good place to start if you’re on a tight deadline for distribution in markets where only GMP is required by regulators. I would argue that striving for the minimum standards will be costly in the long run. Health, safety and quality standards are the foundations upon which winning companies are built. It’s critical to develop a corporate culture that will lead to GFSI-recognized programs without major organizational overhaul. Start on the right foot and set your sights higher – obtain a certification that will stand the test of time and avoid the pain and risks of trying to change entrenched behaviors.
SQF: Safe Quality Food Program Certification
SQF is my number one recommendation as the best certification for the cannabis industry. One of the most common certifications in North America, SQF is a food safety management system recognized by retailers and consumers alike. It is administered by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and, importantly, recognized by GFSI, which gives companies a huge competitive edge. SQF focuses on the whole supply chain.
SQF was also the first to develop a cannabis program and is currently the leader in this market segment. It is also the scheme that best integrates food safety with quality. Since it is recognized worldwide, SQF provides the greatest leverage to accelerate a company’s growth. Once obtained, products with SQF certification can often jump the queue to enter different regulatory markets.
Final verdict: Highly recommended. A cannabis company with an SQF certification has the greatest advantage because it offers the broadest worldwide reach and keeps companies a step ahead of competitors. It’s also achievable – just this past April, Curaleaf Florida ostensibly became the first cannabis company to achieve SQF certification. It is tough, but fair and practical.
Other Certification Standards
SQF is the top certification that should be considered by cannabis companies, especially outside of Europe. However, the food industry has several other major types of standards that, at this time, have limited relevance to the cannabis industry today. Let’s take a quick look.
When considering GFSI-recognized programs, the main choice for food companies is between SQF, which we’ve covered, and BRC (the British Retail Consortium Certification). BRC has the most in common with SQF but, while SQF was originally developed for processed foods, BRC was developed in the UK for meat products. Today, they are quite similar, but BRC doesn’t focus quite as much on the quality component as SQF does. While BRC could be a good option, they don’t have a program for cannabis and, thus far, do not appear to be as friendly toward the cannabis industry.The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages
Across the pond, there are a few other certification standards that are more common than SQF. One of these is ISO 22000, which is the certification for the food-related standard created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Europe. It is not recognized by GFSI but is the primary system used in Europe. If your market is exclusively in the EU, it might be a good choice for you in the future. However, to date, there is no indication that any cannabis company has achieved ISO 22000 certification. Some cannabis companies have attained certification for other ISO standards like ISO 9001:2015, which specifies requirements for quality control systems, and ISO/IEC 17025 for laboratory testing. These are generally more relevant for the pharmaceutical industry than food and beverage, but still apply to cannabis.
There is the perception that cannabis is more accepted in EU countries like the Netherlands, but the regulatory attitude to cannabis is complicated. In the Netherlands, for example, cannabis isn’t actually legal – “coffee shops” fall under a toleration policy that doesn’t include regulation. Medical cannabis in the Netherlands is all produced by one supplier and several countries in the EU allow for licensed distribution and import, but not domestic production. Various EU countries are trying to keep up with the legalization trend, however. The Czech Republic, Germany, and others all recently introduced legislation for domestic production of cannabis for medical use. For companies with their eye on the EU, it is crucial to watch which regulatory requirements will be implemented in each market and how.
The last certification standard to mention is the result of a compromise between ISO and the more HACCP oriented programs like SQF. FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification) tries to address the gaps between ISO 22000 and GFSI-recognized certifications by introducing another component called PAS 220. Since it is recognized by GFSI, FSSC 22000 is starting to get more traction in the food industry because it makes products a bit easier to export to the EU. FSSC 22000 satisfies the EU ISO standards but isn’t as closely tied to HACCP. We will be keeping an eye on this one.
The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages – but it’s difficult for cannabis companies to understand all the options available and how each apply to their specific products. While markets adjust beyond the preliminary issue of legality, it’s crucial for companies to look forward and comply with safety and quality standards like SQF. Companies who strive for SQF certification (or other GFSI-recognized certifications as they become available) will find themselves far better prepared to seize market share as cannabis markets blossom.
The stage is set: cannabis legalization is rolling out around the world. With legalization comes regulations and smart companies will adapt to make new requirements work for them. In the end, our shared goal (as industry, consumers and government) is the same: provide safe, high-quality, reliable products. This is where traceability comes in.
If a cannabis product isn’t safe (cannabis is vulnerable to the same kinds of hazards as most food products), the reputation of the entire industry suffers. Earning public trust is the first step toward favorable government regulations. With upcoming decisions that will decide taxation and distribution, it’s more important than ever that cannabis producers can react quickly if recalls should occur – and that means taking traceability seriously.
Comprehensive Traceability for Cannabis Means More Than Legality
A crucial key to producing safe and high-quality cannabis products is detailed traceability. Many states require cannabis businesses to use systems like Metrc, a technology that uses RFID tags to track cannabis from seed to sale to ensure nothing is diverted to the black market. However, Metrc focuses only on the chain of custody, not on the safety or quality of the product.
Ensuring a secure supply chain is only one piece of the cannabis puzzle. Public health hazards like toxic chemical contamination, mold growth and pathogenic contamination introduced by pests or improper employee handling need to be controlled in order to earn public trust and comply with regulations. State-mandated traceability systems don’t address these imperatives, so an effective safety technology that includes traceability, in addition to mandated systems like Metrc, is absolutely necessary to complete the cannabis picture.
Automation Technology Supports Cannabis Companies’ Growth and Helps With Audits
Cannabis professionals are aware of the regulatory scrutiny the industry is under and many have turned to automation technology to help stand up to this scrutiny, as well as collect and manage all the data necessary for compliance. Automating data collection pays off in several ways. For one, interconnected, real-time IoT technologies that are accessible to the entire facility 24/7 are giving cannabis businesses the tools they need to create the best possible products now, as well as providing them with the data they need to make their products even better. Since frequent audits are a part of the legalization transition, automation also makes preparing for audits and inspections a matter of minutes instead of days.
Ron Sigman, chief executive officer of marijuana compliance consulting firm Adherence Corp. and former investigator for the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) in Colorado, lists the most common violations for cannabis businesses that he found during more than 200 audits in an interview for Marijuana Business Daily. These violations include:
Metrc issues, especially accounting not matching inventory (too many plants or ounces of marijuana on the premises);
Security issues like lack of sufficient camera coverage;
Failure to upgrade licenses;
Improper or incomplete training of new employees.
Adopting safety and traceability concepts that the food industry developed over many decades can yield huge benefits for cannabis businessesA proper cannabis traceability technology mitigates these problems by providing notifications of inventory inconsistencies, certification expirations and more. Traceability for cannabis must be able to handle the complexities of procedures like terpene extraction and injection. With the rapid growth of the industry, it must be able to set targets and track actuals. It should track, not just cannabis plants and related derivatives, but also every other ingredient, material and packaging material used during production. There must be monitoring at each stage of production and a system in place to ensure all employee training is up to date. Preventative maintenance must be scheduled and tracked and hazards must be identified and controlled. In the event of an audit or recall, precise mass-balance calculations must be available to account for every gram of product, including non-cannabis ingredients like coconut oil and packaging materials like pouches and labels.
Detailed traceability can make the difference between a cannabis business keeping their license or being shut down. “You have to make a diligent effort to stay compliant 365 days out of the year, because you never know when a regulatory agency is going to come knocking on your door,” says Sigman. Knowing exactly what went wrong when and where allows a company to make changes so failures don’t happen again.
Higher Standards Will Be Demanded
The standard sought by most in the cannabis industry is only GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certification, which is actually the lowest level of certification possible in food production. With the public demand for edibles and concentrates on the rise and major retailers scrambling for seats at the table, the demand for transparency from growers and manufacturers will increase. Cannabis companies will soon find that GMP compliance simply won’t be enough to earn trust and expand their market share, especially when it comes to edibles and concentrates.
“Every day, patients express interest and assurance of wanting to know that the foods and medicines they consume are safe and of the best quality available,” says Lindsay Jones, president of Curaleaf Florida, the first medical cannabis company in Florida to achieve SQF Certification. Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification ensures a company meets the highest levels of safety and quality on a reliable basis. Curaleaf has set a new bar in the industry that others will be compelled to follow and they should be congratulated for their proactive vision.
Adopting safety and traceability concepts that the food industry developed over many decades can yield huge benefits for cannabis businesses, but it will be interesting to watch the technology evolve to accommodate the specific needs of retailers and consumers. Imagine a traceability system that ensures safety and quality while also tracking consistency and potency.
The Future of Cannabis Is Bright
The emerging cannabis industry is facing challenging hurdles on its path to widespread legalization and acceptance but the forecast is sunny – for companies who are prepared.
Last week, Curaleaf, a medical cannabis producer and processor in Miami, Florida, announced they have earned the Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level II certification. In the press release, they claim they are the first and only medical cannabis company in the state to achieve that certification.
Curaleaf’s products include a line of low-THC and full strength medical cannabis products. They have dispensaries in Miami, Lake Worth, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg, as well as delivery of products from Jacksonville south to Key West.
According to Lindsay Jones, president of Curaleaf Florida, patients ask frequently about the level of safety of cannabis products. “Every day patients express interest and assurance of wanting to know that the foods and medicines they consume are safe and of the best quality available,” says Jones. “This SQF Level II certification that Curaleaf has earned is particularly important for patients and demonstrates that our medical marijuana processing expertise delivers superior quality products for patients in need across Florida.”
Florida’s regulations on medical cannabis producers and processors actually require a form of certification demonstrating proper food safety protocols. “Within 12 months after licensure, a medical marijuana treatment center must demonstrate to the department that all of its processing facilities have passed a Food Safety Good Manufacturing Practices, such as Global Food Safety Initiative or equivalent, inspection by a nationally accredited certifying body,” reads Rule 9 in the 2017 Florida Statute. Edibles producers in Florida “must hold a permit to operate as a food establishment pursuant to chapter 500, the Florida Food Safety Act, and must comply with all the requirements for food establishments pursuant to chapter 500 and any rules adopted thereunder.” The rules also lay out requirements for packaging, dosage and sanitation rules for storage, display and dispensing of edible products.
Looking at SQF Level II certification and GFSI could be a step in the right direction for many cannabis infused product manufacturers, as they are some of the more recognized programs in the food industry.
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