Phenova, Inc., a proficiency testing products and reference materials provider based in Golden, Colorado, works with labs and regulatory bodies to develop proficiency testing (PT) programs. According to a press release sent out by the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), Phenova is A2LA’s first ISO/IEC 17043 accredited PT provider for the cannabis marketplace.
According to Ty Garber, director of new business development for the cannabis and food and beverage markets at Phenova, they have been working with A2LA for over a decade in other industries, but the cannabis testing industry is a huge new market for them. “Our Cannabis Proficiency Testing products and services are experiencing high demand across North America and we are fortunate to offer our expertise in proficiency testing to client laboratories and regulatory agencies in their joint efforts to ensure cannabis product quality and safety,” says Garber. “By working with the laboratories and stakeholder agencies, we have been able to develop and operate Proficiency Testing Programs based on real marijuana matrices, especially where the matrix creates specific analytical challenges. This approach has proven to be very beneficial for everyone involved, and we are working diligently to expand these efforts.”
Trace McInturff, senior director of accreditation services at A2LA, says this could help fill a serious need for conformity assessments in accredited cannabis labs. “A2LA is excited to announce the expansion of Phenova’s existing ISO/IEC 17043 Proficiency Testing Provider scope of accreditation to become the first A2LA accredited Proficiency Testing Provider for cannabis,” says McInturff. “This milestone adds to the positive historical relationship between Phenova and A2LA that dates back to 2005 when A2LA implemented a new TNI SSAS program for Proficiency Testing Providers and A2LA performed one of the first assessments of its kind at Phenova.” McInturff also says that A2LA has been instrumental in establishing the initial ILAC Proficiency Testing Provider accreditation requirements which ultimately became the basis for ISO/IEC 17043.
In addition to the “real marijuana matrix PT programs” that Phenova offers in certain states and countries where legal, they also offer alternative PT standards for labs that have obtained or are working on obtaining ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation.
Anyone with a search engine can piece together how much THC certain strains produce and what their characteristics are. Oh wait- there’s an app for that… or dozens, I lose count these days.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our communityLet’s take one of my favorites, Dutch Treat; relaxing, piney and sweet with a standard production of 18-25% THC, according to three different reviews online. So, did I raise an eyebrow when I saw Dutch Treat on Oregon shelves labeled at 30% THC? Did I take it in to an independent, accredited lab and have it tested for accuracy? You bet your inflated potency results I did! The results? Disappointing.
Nefarious lab results are rampant in our community; it is hurting every participant in our industry affected by the trade, commerce and consumption of recreational cannabis.
“I have had labs ask me what I want my potency numbers to look like and make an offer,” says David Todd, owner and operations manager of Glasco Farms, a craft cannabis producer in central Oregon. “It’s insane- I want to stand behind my product and show through scientific fact that I produce a superior flower.”
But without enforcement of lab practice standards, producers are being pressured to play dirty. In her third year cultivating at a two-tier recreational cannabis farm, a producer who wished to remain anonymous sent me an email about the pressures she is up against to produce high THC strains:
“The only sure way to get my product on the shelf at a profitable price is with THC 25% or above. Not a lot of strains have that potential, but the market has plenty with 28% to 32% floating around so I have to go with the same labs as the rest of the independent farmers to get the best numbers I can. The lab I use … return(s) good numbers.”
Those “good numbers,” aka high THC %, are the driving force of sales. A strain tests at 20% THC and it sells for $1,000/lb. Then it tests at 25% THC, and sells for $1300/lb. You produce cannabis for sale- this is your business. And labs are telling you that they can manipulate samples and reports to make you more money. Everyone else is doing it. If you don’t, your product isn’t “good enough” to sell. What do you do?Labs should operate ethically.
It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by lies, lack of enforcement resources, coercion and undereducation. We are all responsible. Yet, ask who the source of the problem is and everyone points fingers across the circle.
The consumers are uneducated about cannabis and only focus on THC. The dispensaries and budtenders should be educating them. Producers should take a stand and use an honest lab. Labs should operate ethically.
I repeat: Oregon, we have a problem.
It’s time to stop living in a land where Dutch Treat is hitting 30% THC. It’s time for everyone to demand auditing and ethics.
Laws have been set forth on how to sample, prep, test and report analyses for cannabis to ensure fair commerce, consumer health and public safety. But there’s a clear need to blind test the different labs, and for unbiased, third-party research and development.
As federal eyes turn to the Oregon to investigate black market activity, regulatory bodies are tightening their grip on licensees to maintain legal validity and avoid shut down.
The time to demand change and integrity is now.The crack-down began on August 23, 2018, when the OLCC investigated several prominent producers’ practices. Black market distribution incurred the harshest penalty; the OLCC revoked their wholesale license due to multiple violations.
“We want good compliant, law-abiding partners as OLCC marijuana licensees,” says Paul Rosenbaum, OLCC Commission Chair. “We know the cannabis industry is watching what we’re doing, and believe me, we’ve taken notice. We’re going to find a way to strengthen our action against rule breakers, using what we already have on the books, and if need be working with the legislature to tighten things up further.”
Trends in METRC data lay the foundation for truth, and it’s time to put it to use. “The Cannabis Tracking System worked as it should enabling us to uncover this suspicious activity,” says Steven Marks, OLCC Executive Director. “When we detect possible illegal activity, we need to take immediate steps …”
Potency fraud might not be at the top of the list for investigation, but labs and producers are breaking the law, and there will be consequences. ORELAP and OLCC have the right to investigate and revoke licenses of labs that are falsifying data and consumers can file claims with the Department of Justice.
At this year’s Food Safety Consortium a couple weeks ago, the newly launched Cannabis Quality Track featured a number of panels and presentations that highlighted the many intersections between food safety and cannabis. One particular topic of interest was measuring the quality and safety of cannabis products through laboratory testing. At the event this year, representatives from the leading laboratory accreditation bodies in the country sat together on a panel titled Accreditation, Regulation & Certification: Cannabis Labs and Production.
Chris Gunning, life sciences accreditation manager with A2LA
The new ISO 17025:2017 standard was a topic addressed pretty early in the panel. Tracy Szerszen introduced the topic with a recap of the 2005 standard. “With 17025, for those that are familiar with the older version, 2005, there are really two sections of the standard for that one,” says Szerszen. “The newer standard is a little bit different, but there is a quality management system review that we do and we look at the laboratory to ensure that they are testing appropriately based on what they applied for. So, for cannabis labs, they typically have the same scope in types of methods with respect to microbiology and chemistry, and we are making sure they are following the standard from a technical standpoint, meaning they have the right equipment, the appropriate personnel and also have a quality management system.”
Chris Gunning followed that up with a closer look at the changes coming to the new 2017 standard. “If you are familiar with the 2005 version, you know that a lot of the clauses started out with a ‘you shall have a policy and procedure for doing X,’” says Gunning. “One of the major changes to the 2017 version is it gives laboratories more latitude on whether they need to have a policy/procedure to do certain things.” Gunning says the 2017 version is much more of an outcome-based standard. “As far as assessing to it, it becomes a little harder from our side because we can’t say you have to have this quality manual or you have to have this procedure that were going to assess you to. We are more open to looking at the outcomes.”
The most interesting change to the ISO standard comes with addressing the idea of risk. “One of the newest concepts in this standard is risk and how you assess your risk to your organization how you assess risk of impartiality, how you assess your measurement uncertainty when you are creating decision rules,” says Gunning. “Those are the big concepts that have changed in the 2017 standard in that it is more outcome-based and introducing the concept of risk more.”
After discussing some of the broader changes coming to the 2017 version, the panelists began delving into some common pitfalls and issues labs face when trying to get accredited. “From our experience, in Michigan, the new standard was written into the regulations, but a lot of labs were already accredited to 2005,” says Szerszen. “So, we actually contacted the state and explained to them that they have three years to transition. And some states will say ‘too bad, we want the 2017 ISO,’ so some of the cannabis labs are asking us to quickly come back so they can get appropriate licensing in the state and do a transition audit quickly.” She says most states seem to be comfortable with the current transition period everyone has, but it certainly requires some discussion and explanation to get on the same page with state regulators. “November 29, 2020 is the deadline for moving to the new 2017 standard.”
In addition to state requirements like traceability and security on top of an ISO 17025 accreditation, labs can run into issues not typically encountered in other testing markets, as Gunning mentioned during the panel. “One of the hardest parts of getting accredited is the need for properly validated methods, for all the different matrices in samples,” says Gunning. “Some of the biggest hurdles for new labs getting assessed are validation and the availability of reference materials and proficiency testing samples that meet their state requirements.” Those are just a handful of hurdles that labs aren’t usually anticipating when getting accredited.
Another big topic that generated a lot of dialogue during the panel was the need for a national accreditation standard for cannabis testing labs, one that Natalia Larrimer is advocating for. “Many laboratories are operating facilities in more than one state and what they are facing is a different set of criteria for laboratory recognition in each state, says Larrimer. “One initiative that we would love to see more support for, is a set of uniform requirements nationally. ACIL is currently working on developing these type of requirements which would be in addition to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard and specific for cannabis industry…” Larrimer says she’d like to see these requirements recognized nationally to get labs on the same page across multiple states. “This includes requirements for things like security, traceability, proficiency testing, sampling and personnel competence. The industry would greatly benefit from a uniform cannabis testing program across the US, so that testing facilities in Oregon are operating to the same criteria as facilities in California or Colorado, etc.”
The panelists went into greater detail on issues facing the cannabis lab testing industry, but also delved into certifications for food safety and quality, an important new development as the infused products market grows tremendously. Stay tuned for more highlights from this panel and other talks from the Food Safety Consortium. We will be following up this article with another that’ll shed some light on food safety certifications. Stay tuned for more!
This collection of leaders in the European cannabis market is by no means completely neutral. Much less comprehensive. It is however, German and European centric, because these people, by definition and geography, are now sitting at the nexus of a global, and even within Europe, international industry. Europe for that reason, will be the place, and for some time, where the global cannabis industry comes to make deals across borders, meet the high levels of compliance required here that is setting global standards and push the medical revolution forward for (at least) the next five to ten years.
For that reason, the people listed below carry influence far beyond one country or even region, by definition. But they are also not the only people redefining an industry.
Most notably, of course by their exclusion, are women, although there are some exceptions to that and women are increasingly establishing their place at high executive levels although not yet founder or cofounder or, auf Deutsch, Geschäftsfüherin– (Managing Director) at any of the establishing global companies with European presence. That said, they are beginning to make their appearance in every place and career path within the industry.
Movers and Shakers
Dr. Pierre Debs, Ph.D. An American expat with a German Ph.D., and twenty five plus years’ experience in stem cell research, including endocannabinoid system function. Debs is also the often uncredited individual who opened the current medical market in Germany in particular, but with immediate impact throughout Europe. As the scrappy start up MedCann, Debs, his cofounders and a skeleton team based just south of Frankfurt, not only got into the game first, they beat other established companies to obtain the first import license for Canadian flower in the summer of 2016. Including and most notably Tilray. MedCann GmbH at that point became the only other company besides Bedrocan, the perennial Dutch provider for the last twenty years to be able to provide medicinal, GMP-certified flower to the German market. That market distinction of course, did not last long as other companies quickly jumped into the ring but as the medical brand of Canopy, Debs has continued to lead industry development across Europe. Today, as the Geschäftsführerof Spektrum Cannabis GmbH (as MedCann was renamed after its purchase by Canopy sometime in Q4 2016-Q1 2017) and as Canopy Growth Corp Managing Director Europe, Debs has not only established but currently oversees operations in multiple European countries as Canopy Cannabis expands its global medical brand. From, it should also be added, its swanky new digs in central Frankfurt.
Tjalling Erkelens, Bedrocan founder and CEO. Bedrocan is the legacy cannabis player here in a game that is rapidly changing as it expands. The first exporter of medical cannabis in the world, the family owned company currently produces five different cannabis strains bound for the medical market, and is expected to be the beneficiary of the newly expanded import quota into Germany from Holland for medical grade flower, as well as place well in the German cultivation bid.
Gerhard Müller. The unassuming Chair of the Audit Committee of Wayland Group, the cannabis company formerly known as Maricann. Müller is less often in the English-speaking press than Ben Ward, company CEO. However, Müller is a force to be reckoned with as Wayland begins to unfold its usually understated strategy in Germany and Europe from its Munich HQ base. Müller is the former head of Ernst and Young’s GSA Tech Practice, also adding household names like Birgit Homburger and Christopher Peterka to Wayland’s German Advisory Board. Also of note is GM for Wayland Germany Josef Späth now tasked with bringing his connections and previous experience as a top, internationally experienced clean tech architect and engineer to the build out of Wayland’s infrastructure. This includes previous work with NASA Jet Propulsion Lab alumni to develop new techniques for harvesting and processing of cannabis. German ingenuity and engineering at its best!
Patrick Hoffmann, CEO of Aurora Deutschland (formerly Pedianos). This firm too, was one of the early start-ups to get into the distribution and cultivation game and so far they have proven to be adept at navigating the complex path to winning cultivation rights. Aurora placed in the top ten finalists for the last German cultivation bid. As Pedianos, the firm won the first distribution and cultivation deal for Italy, sourced via Berlin. They have already proven to be highly skilled at finding market advantages in an exploding European market puzzle.
David Henn, CEO of Cannamedical Pharma. The millennial at the front of the cannabis import and distribution craze in Germany, founded his start up in November 2016. Henn then obtained one of the first issued licenses for trading and ex-im of medical cannabis just as the law changed in Germany officially to mandate insurance coverage of medical cannabis by prescription. Since then, the fiercely independent entrepreneur has turned down multiple acquisition offers from companies in Canada, Israel and Australia. The Cologne-based company supplies a growing network of German pharmacies and entered into off-take agreements with major companies in Europe, Canada and Australia. Bolstered by its cash flow in the existing distribution business, Cannamedical is continually expanding and has already established European subsidiaries that are in the progress of obtaining additional production and distribution licenses for the company.
Peter Homburg. Partner, Denton’s Law Firm. Peter has already had an established career as a high-powered partner and the head of the firm’s Life Sciences Division. Yet like many people of different paths and persuasions, he began to explore the world of the legal end of the business several years ago. These days, albeit based in Frankfurt, he has helped establish the firm’s reputation internationally as a leading law firm in the cannabis space.
Rob Reid. Reid wears several influential hats based out of his offices in London. As the director of publicly listed, SOL Investments Corp (formerly Scythian), he invests in the U.S.-based cannabis industry. He is also the co-founder of European Cannabis Holdings (ECH), which is investing in a portfolio of private medical cannabis companies on this side of the pond. He is also the co-founder of Prohibition Partners, the increasingly prolific market intelligence and consultancy firm, and Cannabis Europa, a conference and networking platform. Finally, he is involved in a number of cultivation JVs around the world.
Marla Luther. As co-director for Tilray Europe (along with Sean Carney) and based in Berlin, Marla has the most senior leadership title of any woman in the cultivation and distribution industry in Europe. She has also been in the position for the last several years.
Alex Rogers. As the founder of the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC), Alex has established perhaps the first truly international cannabis conference brand catering to the professional end of the regulated industry but retaining the soul of the advocacy movement. The Berlin conference going into its third year in 2019, literally reset the standards if not stage for the next upgrade of the industry conference concept. Within a year of its first international conference in Berlin, Alex and his team had also established conferences in Canada and are establishing the B2B conference of Spannabis under their rubric in Barcelona as of next year.
The track will have presentations discussing food safety planning in cannabis manufacturing, HACCP, GMPs, regulatory compliance and supply chain issues among other areas. One particular topic of interest in the quality and safety of cannabis products is laboratory testing. At the event this year, leading laboratory accreditation bodies in the country will sit together on a panel titled Accreditation, Regulation & Certification: Cannabis Labs and Production.
Laboratories that are new to the industry and looking to get accredited should be aware of the new ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standard, which was released last year. According to Tracy Szerszen, labs that have already been accredited to the 2005 version will be required to transition to the 2017 version by November 29, 2020. “This can be done in conjunction with routine assessments scheduled in 2019 and 2020,” says Szerszen. “However, laboratories are cautioned to transition within a reasonable timeframe to avoid their 17025: 2005 certificate from lapsing prior to the transition deadline. Some of the changes to the standard include but are not limited to: the re-alignment of clauses similar to ISO 9001:2015 and other ISO industry standards, modifications to reporting and decision rules, the addition of risked based thinking and a new approach to managing complaints.” Szerszen, along with the other panelists, will go much more in-depth on changes to the new ISO 17025 and other topics during the panel at the Food Safety Consortium.
Some of the other topics the panel will discuss include:
ISO/IEC 17025 –what’s expected, benefits of accreditation, common deficiencies, updates to the new 17025 standard
Standards available for production facilities-GMPs & GFSI standards
How standards can be used to safeguard the quality of production and safety requirements
An open discussion with panelists from leading accreditation bodies on the state of cannabis lab testing
According to Chris Gunning, many states are requiring accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025, the standard used throughout the world in many other high-profile industries such as the testing of food and pharmaceuticals, environmental testing, and biosafety testing. “In an industry where there are few standard methods, where one hears that you can ‘pay to play,’ and where there are ‘novice’ laboratories popping up with little experience in operating a testing laboratory, it is extremely important to have an experienced, independent, 3rd party accrediting body evaluating the laboratory,” says Gunning. “This process confirms their adherence to appropriate quality management system standards, standard methods or their own internally developed methods, and can verify that those methods produce valid results. Ultimately, the process of accreditation gives the public confidence that a testing laboratory is meeting their state’s requirements and therefore consumers have access to a quality product.” He says most states with legal cannabis recognize the need for product testing by a credentialed laboratory.
Another important topic that the panel will address is the role of food safety standards in the cannabis industry. Lauren Maloney says cannabis product manufacturers should consider GMP and HACCP certifications for their businesses. “Food safety is important to the cannabis industry because although individual states have mandated several food safety requirements there still considerable risks involved in the production of cannabis products,” says Lauren Maloney. “Consumers want the assurance that the cannabis products are safe and therefore should be treated like a food product. Because FDA does not have oversight of these production facilities, third party certification is essential to ensure these facilities implement a robust food safety system.”
In A Culture of Food Safety: A Position Paper (2018), the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) defines food safety culture as the “shared values, beliefs, and norms that affect mind-set and behavior toward food safety in, across, and throughout an organization.” In other words, food safety culture in your workplace is the “this is how we do things around here.”
A food safety culture needs to be relentlessly communicated – everyone needs to know it is his or her job, not just a dusty slogan on the wall or a whisper down the halls.Building a strong food safety culture is particularly relevant to the cannabis workplace because of the unique history of the workers and the unique needs of the consumers. The cannabis industry is special in that it was an industry before it became regulated. As such, there are many workers in the industry who have a deep passion for cannabis products, but with experience rooted in working within only a few official standards. Thus, the behavior and mind-set of workers in the cannabis industry must adjust to new regulations. However, even currently, standards are ever changing and vary from state to state; this causes further confusion and inconsistency for you and your workers. On top of that, now that cannabis is legalized in certain pockets, cannabis reaches a larger, wider audience. This population includes consumers most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as people with immunocompromised systems, the elderly, the pregnant or the young. These consumers in particular need and deserve access to safe cannabis products every experience. Therefore, it is that much more important to develop a strong food safety culture in the workplace to promote safe, quality cannabis large-scale production for the larger, wider audience.
To achieve a food safety culture, GFSI emphasizes the vision and mission of the business, the role of the leaders in the organization, and the continuity of communication and training. GFSI also emphasizes that these components are interrelated and all are needed to strengthen a food safety culture. Food safety culture components can be simplified into: 1) things you believe, 2) things you say, and 3) things you do.“this is how we do things around here.”
Things You Believe
Food safety culture starts from the top, with the executive team and senior managers. It is this group that dictates the vision and mission of the business and decides to include food safety and quality as a part of this guiding star. Moreover, it is this group that commits to the support for food safety by investing the time, money and resources. The message then has to spread from the executive team and senior managers to an interdepartmental team within the workplace. That way, the values of food safety can be further shared to front-line workers during onboarding and/or continuous training. To restart a food safety culture, a town hall can be a useful tool to discuss priorities in the workplace. Overall, it is important to have every worker believe in producing safe food and that every worker is a part of and has ownership of contributing to the food safety culture at your workplace (GFSI, 2018).
Things You Say
A food safety culture needs to be relentlessly communicated – everyone needs to know it is his or her job, not just a dusty slogan on the wall or a whisper down the halls. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a saying that “if it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.” Thus, the guidelines for a food safety culture need to be embedded in the policies, programs and procedures; and these guidelines need to be a part of training from day one and supplemented with periodic reminders. For effectiveness, make the communication engaging, relevant and simple – use your workers to pose for posters, use digital tools such as memes. In his presentation at the 2015 Food Safety Consortium, Frank Yiannas, vice president of food safety at Walmart, says “How many of you created training videos that you show the desired behavior once? You should probably show the behavior more than once and by a few different employees so that when they see it, they see multiple people in the video doing it and that’s the social norm.” By sending a consistent message, a food safety culture can flourish in your workplace.A food safety culture does not happen once; a food safety culture is a long-term commitment with continuous improvement.
Things You Do
A food safety culture does not happen once; a food safety culture is a long-term commitment with continuous improvement. Periodic evaluation of food safety metrics and alignment with business goals contribute to maintaining a food safety culture – it is useful to learn from successes as well as mistakes. In the same presentation mentioned above, Yiannas discusses “Learning from the wrong way [mistakes] lessens the likelihood that we will become complacent” where he defines complacency as “a feeling of quiet security, often while unaware of some potential danger or defect that lurks ahead.” Without the constant commitment, businesses can falter in their food safety and cause costly mistakes – whether that be recalls or illnesses or worse. By not becoming complacent and emphasizing constant accountability, a food safety culture can thrive at your workplace and make your workplace thrive.
With the regulated cannabis industry still in its infancy, the time is now for every cannabis workplace to instill a food safety culture. Before being mandated, the cannabis industry can rally for food safety because it is the right thing to do. With participation from each workplace, the industry as a whole can be united in producing safe product and be better positioned to change stigmas.
According to the press release, the two organizations hope to promote “foundational standards for quality control testing and regulatory guidelines that promote product safety.” Both organizations will advocate for the adoption of industry standards they deem appropriate for recreational and medical cannabis as well as hemp testing in the United States.
Michael Bronstein, executive director of ATACH, says there is an urgent need for open-source consensus standards and standard test methods for cannabis testing. “In an industry that lacks standard test methods and where testing is such a crucial part of the regulatory landscape, the need for open-source consensus standards is especially significant,” says Bronstein. “The development and adoption of standard test methods for cannabis testing is essential in ensuring consistency between laboratories, encouraging uniformity in state testing regulation, and providing a safe and consistent product to consumers.”
The press release also states that A2LA and ATACH seek to “develop regulation and adopt industry standards with goals of advancing and professionalizing the industry.”
Documents play a key role in the world of regulations and global standards. Documents tell a story on programs development, implementation and verification during an inspection or audit. Documents are used as evidence to determine conformance to the law or standard. However, do you know what kind of documents may be reviewed during a regulatory inspection or a food safety audit? Are you prepared to show that the implementation of regulatory requirements or a standard is done efficiently at your facility?
Inspectors and auditors will look for compliance either to regulations or to a standard criterion. Regulations and standards require that documentation is controlled, secured and stored in an area where they cannot deteriorate. Therefore, writing a Document Management Program (DMP) will help a business owner ensure consistency in meeting this and other requirements.Radojka Barycki will host a a plenary session titled, “Cannabis: A Compliance Revolution” at the 2018 Food Safety Consortium | Learn More
A well-developed and implemented DMP provides control over documents by providing a number sequence and revision status to the document. In addition, ownership for development, review and distribution of the documents are assigned to specific individuals within the company to ensure that there are no inconsistencies in the program. Documents must also have the name of the company in addition to a space to write the date when the record is generated. It is recommended to include the address if there are multiple operational sites within the same company.
There are different types of documents that serve as support to the operations:
Program: A written document indicating how a business will execute its activities. When it comes to the food industry, this is a written document that indicates how quality, food safety and business activities are controlled.
Procedures: General actions conducted in a certain order. Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs) allow the employee to know what to do in general. For example, a truck receiving procedure only tells the employee what the expected conditions are when receiving a truck (cleanliness, temperature, etc.) However, it doesn’t tell the employee how to look for the expected conditions at the time of the truck arrival.
Work Instructions: Detailed actions conducted in a certain order. For example, truck inspection work instruction tells the employee what steps are to be followed to perform the inspection.
Forms: Documents used to record activities being performed.
Work Aids: are documents that provide additional information that is important to perform the job and can be used as a quick reference when performing the required activities within the job.
The inspectors and auditors base their role on the following saying: “Say what you do. Do what you say. Prove it!” The programs say what the company do. The procedures, work instructions and work aids provide information on implementation (Do what you say) and the forms become records that are evidence (prove) that the company is following their own written processes.
Regulatory requirements for cannabis vary from state to state. In general, an inspector may ask a cannabis business to provide the following documentation during an inspection:
Product Traceability Programs and Documents
Product Testing (Certificate of Analysis – COAs)
Certification Documents (applicable mainly to cannabis testing labs)
Proof of Destruction (if product needs to be destroyed due to non-compliance)
Training Documents (competency evidence)
As different states legalize cannabis, new regulatory requirements are being developed and modeled after the pharma, agriculture and food industries. In addition, standards will be in place that will provide more consistency to industry practices at a global level. The pharma, agriculture and food industries base their operations and product safety in programs such as cGMPs, GAPs, HACCP-based Food Safety Management Systems and Quality Management Systems. Documents required during an inspection or audit are related to:
Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)
Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs)
Food Safety Plan Documents
Ingredient and Processing Aids Receiving
Ingredient and Processing Aids Storage
Operational Programs (Product Processing)
Final Product Storage
Final Product Transportation
Document Management Program
In the always evolving cannabis industry, are you prepared to face document requirements now and in the future?
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.
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