I think that we need to start changing the terminology around the hazards associated with cannabis from food safety hazards to product safety hazards. These hazards have not only been associated with harmful effects for those that ingest cannabis infused products, but also for those that consume the cannabis products in other ways such as inhalation (vaping or smoking). So, when we refer to these hazards as food safety hazards, the immediate thought is edibles, which misleads cultivators, manufacturers and consumers to have a false sense of security around the safety of products that are consumed in other ways.
There are several product safety hazards that have been associated with cannabis. These hazards can become a public health problem if not controlled as they could harm the consumer, regardless of the method of consumption.
Let’s take a look at the different types of hazards associated cannabis:
Biological Hazards refer to those microorganisms that can cause illness to the consumer of a product that contain them. They are not visible to the naked eye and are very dangerous when their metabolic by-products (toxins) are ingested or their spores are inhaled. The symptoms for illnesses caused by these microorganisms will vary. Consumers may experience gastrointestinal discomfort (vomiting, diarrhea), headaches, fever and other symptoms. The ingestion of these pathogens, allergens or their by-products may lead to death, if the illness is not treated on time or if the consumer of the product is immunocompromised. In addition, the inhalation of mold spores when smoking cannabis products, can lead to lung disease and death. Some of the biological hazards associated with cannabis are: Salmonella sp., E. coli, Clostridium botulinum, Aspergillus sp. and Penicillium sp.
Chemical Hazards refer to those chemicals that can be present in the plant or finished product due to human applications (pesticides), operational processes (extraction solvents and cleaning chemicals), soil properties (heavy metals), environmental contamination (radiological chemicals) or as a result of occurring naturally (mycotoxins and allergens). Consuming high concentrations of cleaning chemicals in a product can lead to a wide range of symptoms from mild rash, burning sensation in the oral-respiratory system, gastrointestinal discomfort or death. In addition, long term exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, radiological contaminants and mycotoxins may lead to the development of cancers.
Physical Hazards refer to those foreign materials that may be present in the plant or finished product. Foreign materials such as rocks, plastics or metals can cause harm to the consumer by chipping teeth or laceration of the mouth membranes (lips, inner cheeks, tong, esophagus, etc.) In the worst-case scenario, physical hazards may lead to choking, which can cause death due to asphyxiation.
These hazards can be prevented, eliminated or reduced to an acceptable level when foundational programs (Good Agricultural/Cultivation Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, Allergen Management Program, Pest Control, etc.) are combined with a Food [Product] Safety Plan. These lead to a Food [Product] Safety Management System that is designed to keep consumers safe, regardless of the method of consumption.
Cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC is not eligible for USDA organic certification, due to the crop’s Schedule I status. While some hemp farmers are currently on the path to obtain a USDA organic certification, the rest of the cannabis industry is left without that ability.
Growers, producers, manufacturers and dispensaries that utilize the same practices as the national organic program should be able to use that to their advantage in their marketing. Ian Rice, CEO of Envirocann, wants to help cannabis companies tap into that potential with what he likes to call, “comparable to organic.”
Rice co-founded SC Laboratories in 2010, one of the first cannabis testing labs in the world, and helped develop the cannabis industry’s first testing standards. In 2016, Rice and his partners at SC Labs launched Envirocann, a third-party certification organization, focused on the quality assurance and quality control of cannabis products. Through on-site inspections and lab testing, Envirocann verifies and subsequently certifies that best practices are used to grow and process cannabis, while confirming environmental sustainability and regulatory compliance.
“Our backyard in Santa Cruz and the central coast is the birthplace of the organic movement,” says Rice. California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), founded in Santa Cruz more than 40 years ago, was one of the first organizations in the early 1990s that helped write the national organic program.
“What we came to realize in the lab testing space and as the cannabis market grew, was that a lot of cannabis companies were making the organic claims on their products,” says Rice. “At the time, only one or two organizations in the cannabis space were making an attempt to qualify best practices or create an organic-type feel of confidence among consumers.” What Rice saw in their lab was not cannabis that could be considered organic: “We saw products being labeled as organic, or with certain claims of best practices, that were regularly failing tests and testing positive for banned chemicals. That really didn’t sit well with us.”
At the time, there was no real pathway to certify cannabis products and qualify best practices. “We met with a few people at the CCOF that were very encouraging for us to adopt the national organic program’s standards for cannabis. We followed their lead in how to adopt the standards and apply a certification, building a vehicle intended to certify cannabis producers.”
Because of their background in lab testing they added the requirement for every crop that gets certified to undergo a site inspection, sampling, as well as a pesticide residue test to confirm no pesticides were used at all during the production cycle. One of their clients is Coastal Sun Farms, a greenhouse and outdoor cannabis producer. “They grow incredible products at a high-level, commercial scale at the Enviroganic standard,” says Rice. “They have been able to prove that organic cannabis is economically viable.”
The Envirocann certification goes a bit beyond the USDA’s organic program in helping their clients with downstream supply chain risk management tools (SCRM). “Because of the rigorous testing of products to get certified and go to market, we are getting way ahead of supply chain or production issues,” says Rice. “That includes greater oversight and transparency, not just for marketing the final product.”
A good example of using SCRM to a client’s advantage is in the extraction business. A common scenario recently in the cannabis market involves flower or trim passing the pesticide tests at the lab. But when that flower makes it down the supply chain to a manufacturer, the extraction process concentrates chemical levels along with cannabinoid levels that might have previously been acceptable for flower. “I’ve witnessed millions and millions of dollars evaporate because flower passed, but the concentrated final product did not,” says Rice. “We’ve introduced a tool to get ahead of that decision-making process, looking beyond just a pass/fail. With our partner labs, we look at the chromatograms in greater detail beyond regulatory requirements, which gives us information on trace levels of chemicals we may be looking for. It’s a really rigorous audit on these sites and it’s all for the benefit of our clients.”
Envirocann has also recently added a processing certification for the manufacturing sector and a retail certification for dispensaries. That retail certification is intended to provide consumers with transparency, truth in labeling and legitimate education. The retail certification includes an assessment and audit of their management plan, which goes into details like procurement and budtender education, as well as basic considerations like energy usage and waste management.
While Envirocann has essentially adopted the USDA’s organic program’s set of standards for what qualifies organic producers, which they call “Enviroganic,” they also certify more conventional producers with their “Envirocann” certification. “While these producers might not be considered organic farmers, they use conventional methods of production that are responsible and deserve recognition,” says Rice. “A great example for that tier would be Fog City Farms: They are growing indoor with LED lighting and have multiple levels in their indoor environment to optimize efficiency and minimize their impact with waste and energy usage, including overall considerations for sustainability in their business.”
According to a press release published last week, the U.S. Hemp Authority (USHA) announced that FoodChain ID, a global leader in food safety, testing and sustainability, is now the exclusive certifying body for the USHA certification seal.
FoodChain ID’s claim to fame is their widely-recognized Non-GMO Project Verification labeling standard, but they also offer services in the food, beverage and ingredient industries, including the entire food supply chain, as well as being a leader in USDA Organic certifications.
The effort to provide quality standards and guidance for best practices in the hemp and CBD markets is led by a coalition of organizations with the same goal: to legitimize the industry and gain consumer trust. The effort is funded by the U.S. Hemp Roundtable and joined by the Hemp Industries Association, the U.S. Hemp Authority, testing laboratories, agronomists, quality assessors and other industry-leading firms.
In order for a hemp company to get the certified seal, they must prove that they can meet strict standards, pass an independent third-party audit as well as enter a licensing agreement. The certification seal is an attempt to provide some legitimacy to the ever-changing hemp and CBD markets in the United States.
Marielle Weintraub, president of the U.S. Hemp Authority, says that through the program’s independent, third-party lab testing, the certification seal provides consumers with truth in labeling and transparency. “The U.S. Hemp Authority Certification Program is our industry’s initiative to provide high standards, best practices, and self-regulation, giving consumers an easy way to identify hemp-derived products that can be trusted,” says Weintraub. “We are striving for ingredient transparency and truth in labeling.”
According to Weintraub, the standards and best practices for the program are routinely updated and improved. There will be a public session where they discuss those standards and update industry stakeholders on their progress at the Natural Products Expo West on March 2nd.
Mark Dabroski, senior vice president, commercial services at FoodChain ID, says that hemp products are becoming increasingly common in the food, beverage and health and wellness markets. “Hemp seed oil and protein markets have been increasing exponentially over the last decade,” says Dabroski. “With the category’s expected growth at a 46% CAGR to reach $2.8B by 2023, the need for self-regulation and transparency are critical.”
“As consumers increasingly demand to know what is in the foods and products they buy, our suite of testing and verification services helps meet this demand,” says Dabroski.
There is a strange, if yet so far undetected, regulatory hum in the air right now in Europe that will begin to increasingly occupy those who are in the certified industry here or looking to get in.
And no, it’s not imminent “recreational,” although it will also have vast impact on the same.
A little understood regulatory structure (so far at least within the cannabis industry) called EU-BIO is now firmly in the room.
What that is and how it will impact the industry is already starting to show up in a few places (see the new announcement by the Swiss that their recreational trial will be organic). This is of course before any dates have even been decided upon for said trial (although others have been set up in the country for about a year).
Beyond this, there are vast implications for every part of the industry, THC or CBD, medical or “lifestyle” focused.
What is EU BIO?
All food in the European Union is regulated on a “federal” level much like in the United States. The difference in Europe however, is that every European “state” or country (like Germany, Spain or Holland) also then has their own regulatory structure which is also equal to the federal standards of the U.S. – including via treaty on both the pharmaceutical and “consumer” side. In general, as a result, regulations, including in all things cannabis space related, are much stricter in Europe.
What this also means, generally, is that all food, cosmetic and human-use lebensmittel (to use the German word for everyday consumer goods like food, cosmetics and lifestyle products) must pass through regulatory agencies that are very much like the USDA and FDA in every country and on a regional European level before being approved on a national sovereign one. Where those are, and who handles what, however, is a patchwork of agencies across the continent. There is no homogenization, in other words, for an organic producer looking for the right agency to get certification from in Germany and Austria.
The distinctive green logo that is omnipresent in particularly German grocery stores also comes with a few high standards of its own. Namely that the logo must appear on all pre-packaged EU food products claiming to be organic within the EU and all member states as well as all imports. Even more importantly, the logo cannot be placed on “transition” projects – namely those which are hoping to fulfil the regulatory standards but are not there yet.
To complicate matters even further, of course all product that ends up as EU GMP must begin life as an organic product. Forget pesticides – radiated product is a hot topic right now as well as its certification in the German medical market.
And that also means, by definition, that all cannabis production in Europe as well as products hoping to be sold via relatively normal channels, must also meet these certifications.
The only other option of course, is what is called “Novel Food.” And even here, thanks to changes in EU BIO on the table for the next couple of years, those who hope to gain access via this kind of labelling, still need to pay attention to organic production. No matter where you are. Or what you want to sell.
Are All “Organics” Made Equal?
Just as in the medical industry and GMP, the strictures of “certified organic” are supposed to be fairly straightforward, but are interpreted by different countries and regions.
Generally speaking, however, national or even regional “organics” are not exactly the same. For example, Canadian “organic” is not the same as EU-BIO, starting with the fact that the plants in question are not necessarily of European origin (see the same logic here as behind Novel Food). In other words, there is no automatic equality, starting with the source of the seed. But there are also other issues in the room including processing.
That said, being organic is going to be the watchword of the industry. And in this, a bit surprisingly, the US will also have a lasting impact. Why? Because many countries want to export to the US (far from cannabis) and are required to adopt similar agricultural standards (see Latin America for starters).
Bottom line: it is better to be “green”, through and through, no matter where you are, or where you are from, in the global industry going forward. By the end of 2021, certified organic supply, at every level of the industry, won’t be a “choice” anymore.
As the cannabis market matures and the value chain becomes modernized, it’s important to address product safety in a comprehensive way. In other areas of manufacturing, Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) has been the standard for reducing hazards both for employees and for the products themselves. A Critical Control Point (CCP) is any spot from conception to consumption where a loss of control can potentially result in risk (Unnevehr, 1996). In the food realm, HACCP has been used to drive quality enhancements since the 1980s (Cichy, 1982).
In a nutshell, HACCP seeks to help identify where a problem may enter a product or environment and how that problem may be addressed before it escalates. In cannabis, these hazards include many of the same problems that food products have: specifically molds, yeasts, and pathogenic bacteria (Listeria, E. coli, etc.). While the current industry standard is to test products at the end stage for these contaminants, this late-stage pass/fail regimen leads to huge lots of destroyed product and a risk for consumer distrust (Yamashiro, 2019). HACCP, therefore, should be applied at every stage of the production process.
Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM) is a tool that can be used to identify CCPs in a cannabis cultivation or processing facility. The main goal of a PEM program is to find a contaminant before it reaches a surface that touches the product or the product itself. PEM is conducted using a pre-moistened swab or a sponge to collect a sample from the cannabis environment. The swab can then be sent to a lab for microbial testing. Keys to an effective PEM are:
1. Start with a broad stroke – When the FDA comes to a facility suspected of producing pathogen-laced food products, they conduct what is known as a Swab-a-thon. A Swab-a-thon is a top to bottom collection of samples, usually totaling 100 or more. Similarly, preemptively swabbing should be the first step in any PEM—swab everything to see what exists as a baseline.
2. Map your scene – identify on a map of your facility the following:
Flow of air and people (where do air and people enter and where do they go?
Identifying the above zones will help deepen your understanding of where contaminants may come into contact with cannabis and how they may migrate from a Non-CCS to a CCS.
3. Plan and execute:
Based on the results of mapping, and Swab-a-thon, identify where and when you will be collecting samples on a consistent and repeatable basis. Emphasis should be placed on areas that are deemed a risk based on 1) and 2). Samples should be collected at random in all zones to ensure comprehensive screening.
4. Remediate and modify:
If you get a positive result during PEM, don’t panic—pathogens are ubiquitous.
Remediate any trouble spots with deep cleaning, remediation devices or other protocols.
Re-test areas that were positive for pathogens to ensure remediation is successful.
Revisit and modify the plan at least once a year and each time a new piece of equipment is added or production flow is otherwise changed.
The steps above are a good starting point for a grower or processor to begin a PEM. Remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach to safety; each facility has its own unique set of hazards and control points.
Comprehensive guides for PEM can be found at the links below, many of the concepts can be applied to cannabis production.
Connoisseurs know that pairing a fine cut of steak with a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is a sure winner. But how many are aware that pairing strawberry cheesecake with a certified Santa Cruz Blue Dream cannabis strain creates an equally delicate palatal synergy? Thanks to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s CalCannabis Appellations Project (“CAP”), premium cannabis regions will soon have the potential to capitalize on such newfound awareness among discerning consumers.
For decades, cannabis connoisseurs have been willing to pay a premium for flower said to have been grown in certain regions or with certain techniques, but because of cannabis’ legal status, supply chains have been opaque. As a result, cultivators of distinct cannabis strains struggled to capture the full market potential of their products. That has begun to shift with implementation of California’s Cannabis Track-and-Trace System. The costs associated with implementation of the METRC1 system have been bemoaned by many in the industry, but there is also tremendous potential value in having the most transparent supply chain in the world. The CalCannabis Appellations Project is the vehicle through which brands will be able to harness that value.
The underlying premise behind the CalCannabis Appellations Project is that the distinctive qualities of a cannabis product are often attributable to where and how the plant is grown. Through this project, CalCannabis is developing a statewide appellations system2 that will allow qualifying licensed cultivators to effectively communicate information about their cannabis crops (i.e., the standards, practices and/or varietals used) through labels, advertisements and other marketing techniques. It will also prevent disingenuous cannabis cultivators from making inaccurate claims about where and how a product is grown, which protects the integrity and value of the appellation.
What is an appellation?
In general terms, an appellation is an identifying name, title or label that can be legally defined and protected. Appellations are most commonly used in the wine industry to geographically identify the origin of grapes in a particular bottle. This place-based identification system comes from an understanding that certain regions have unique environmental and growing characteristics, which result in a product that cannot be produced from other regions even when the same varietals are used. Famous wine appellations or American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California include the Napa Valley and Santa Ynez AVAs, and sub-AVAs such as the Russian River Valley AVA, located within the larger Sonoma County AVA.
Recognizing there are also growing regions that produce uniquely distinctive cannabis, CalCannabis is developing a process for:
Establishing an appellation (i.e., identifying regions that produce distinctive cannabis and defining standards, practices and/or varietals that must be used in those regions to qualify for an appellation); and
Qualifying to use a particular appellation once they are established (i.e., determining the cannabis cultivators that can legally label or market themselves as belonging to a particular appellation).
While the state has not released program details, it’s likely that cultivators will have to demonstrate their outdoor-grown cannabis is distinctly unique.3 CalCannabis has until Jan. 21, 2021,4 to establish these processes, but a draft is expected to be released by early January 2020.5 This is an opportunity for cultivators to organize and participate in the process to define and create unique local appellations.
What are the benefits of an appellations system?
Appellations benefit both cannabis cultivators and consumers. It allows small farmers to capture the value that consumers place on unique and local cannabis products. Allowing for product differentiation through an appellations system will prevent cannabis from becoming a commodity—a situation that could result in indistinguishable products and a single market price for cannabis regardless of how or where it is grown. Thus, an appellations system protects not only local economies and farming communities, but also consumers that care about the origin and growing practices of their cannabis.
A criticism of appellations, particularly in the wine industry, is that they can disincentivize innovation and industry growth when strict growing practices and standards are required to be a part of an appellation. This will be an important consideration as CalCannabis establishes its appellations system.
County of Origin
In addition to setting up an appellations system, the CalCannabis Appellations Project will expand upon current county of origin regulations. Unlike an appellation designation, the county of origin designation is designed to be much more inclusive—it can currently be used on any cannabis product as long as 100% of the cannabis is grown within the designated county.6 Whereas an appellation will communicate information about the quality of a cannabis product and how it was produced, a county of origin designation is more like a “Made In” label. For example, a county of origin designation can be applied to indoor cannabis whereas an appellation will likely only include sun-grown cannabis.
There is also a desire to allow city of origin designations in addition to county of origin designations, which would enable products grown wholly within the political boundaries of a city to further differentiate themselves.7 As the legal cannabis landscape changes nationwide, it may also be important to have a statewide appellation allowing products to be marketed as “Grown in California.”
What should cannabis cultivation regions be doing now?
After CalCannabis releases a draft process for establishing an appellation, the next steps will be clarified. However, not everyone is waiting. For instance, growers in Mendocino County have already started to organize.8 The Mendocino Appellations Project divided the county into 11 unique subregions based on regional growing conditions and practices that could potentially be turned into appellations in the future. The goal of the appellations outlined by the Mendocino Appellations Project is to protect cannabis products coming out of Mendocino County and preserve the region’s growing heritage.
A group in Sonoma County is also discussing the establishment of appellations with the hope that it will help differentiate their cannabis and draw attention to the unique microclimate and soil structure in parts of Sonoma County.9 The groups involved in these discussions also believe it will allow cultivators to develop strict growing standards and to protect certain strains, while creating new jobs and encouraging agritourism. Appellations will become increasingly important as sophisticated consumers begin to select quality cannabis that aligns with their preferences.
METRC is the third-party-owned software contracted by California authorities to implement the commercial cannabis track-and-trace system “from seed-to-sale.”
Passage of Senate Bill 185 calls for the use of the term “appellations of origin” instead of “appellations.”
Based on comments made during the October 23 Cannabis Advisory Committee Meeting.
Business and Professions Code Section 26063.
Based on comments made during the October 23 Cannabis Advisory Committee Meeting.
Business and Professions Code Section 26063(a).
Based on comments made during the October 23 Cannabis Advisory Committee Meeting.
With 33 states and the District of Columbia having passed laws legalizing marijuana in some form, cannabis cultivation is quickly becoming a booming new business across much of the US. From an energy standpoint, unfortunately, it’s not easy being “green”.
New Frontier Data’s 2018 Cannabis Energy Report found that legal cannabis cultivation in the US consumes approximately 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity annually – enough to power 92,500 homes or a community the size of Newark, NJ, and accounts for carbon emissions equivalent to that of 92,600 cars. And that consumption is forecasted to increase 162 percent from 2017 to 2022. The report recommended that the industry “evaluate energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies” to nip this challenge in the bud.
Growers seeking to reduce their electricity usage through more efficient lighting face a confusing landscape of options, however. It can be difficult to know what will save electricity and work well for their operations. Technology is advancing quickly and questions abound, from how long a fixture will last and whether a manufacturer’s claims about efficacy are accurate to the effectiveness of various wavelengths for growing a particular plant.
Here’s the good news: there are reliable, third-party lighting and safety standards to help indoor growers make the leap from old-school lighting to state-of-the-art light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that use a fraction of the electricity and are increasingly effective for growing crops from cannabis to tomatoes. Here’s a closer look:
Most lighting fixtures in the North American market go through rigorous inspection by certified third-party testing labs. The first part of the check is for safety – an official UL safety standard tailored for the unique challenges of the greenhouse environment was recently released (UL 8800, the Standard for Horticultural Lighting Equipment and Systems). This standard and similar safety certifications at other major labs address wiring, environmental conditions, ingress protection and worker safety related to prolonged photobiological exposure to the eyes and skin. Growers should always ask a fixture manufacturer about safety certification specifically targeted for horticultural environments.
Next on the standards checklist for horticultural fixtures is performance testing. This often happens at the same labs that do safety testing, but is designed to verify efficacy, output, spectrum and other important performance variables. Commercial labs are certified for specific standards, so that a test on a fixture is repeatable at any other lab certified to the same standard. This performance testing results in a report summarizing items like photosynthetic photon flux (PPF), input power (watts), photosynthetic flux efficacy (PPE, measured in μmol/J or micromoles of photosynthetic photons per joule of electrical input power), and spectral content (flux per nanometer (nm) between 400 and 700 nm).
Then, there are flux maintenance standards (such as IES LM-80 and IES TM-21) that help make sure the photosynthetic light output of LED products degrades at an acceptable rate to make a grower’s investment worthwhile. The testing and calculation methods that go into these standards were painstakingly developed through a consensus of knowledgeable lighting stakeholders. A key difference between general lighting and plant lighting, however, is how flux maintenance is measured and benchmarked – the bar is significantly higher for plants compared to people since their metabolism and growth are dependent on the light spectrum and amount.
What’s described above just scratches the surface of the detailed testing used to determine and communicate performance features for commercial horticultural lighting fixtures. There’s a lot of important information to know, but it takes an informed reader to analyze this information and use it to select appropriate horticultural lighting. Our organization, the DesignLights Consortium (DLC), strives to make the vetting process easier for everyone, freeing up growers to focus on their core business.
In the early days of LED lighting, electric utilities had to compare these different lighting factors and reports to inform their energy efficiency rebate/incentive programs. The DLC was founded to fill this need, serving as a central clearinghouse for setting energy efficiency and other product performance minimum standards, and to evaluate products against those standards. Then and now, lighting products that pass review qualify for an online qualified products list (QPL) that utilities use to quickly and accurately incentivize high-performing products.
With its new minimum performance standards for horticultural light fixtures, the DLC seeks to accelerate the adoption of new energy-saving LED fixtures in controlled agriculture environments. To be on the new DLC Horticultural QPL, an LED fixture must be at least 10 percent more efficacious than the best non-LED alternative – a 1,000-watt double-ended high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixture. It also must have a Q90 of 36,000 hours (the number of hours before the photon flux output depreciates to 90 percent), and its driver and fan (if included) must have a rated life of at least 50,000 hours.
Most importantly, every product is listed online in a searchable, filterable database to help growers and facility designers quickly narrow their options. For example, in a retrofit, a grower might know what PPF is needed from each fixture but might also need to stay within a power budget to avoid rewiring circuits. The DLC’s Horticultural QPL can be filtered to quickly find and compare conforming products.
When a new technology is introduced, there is always uncertainty about how to optimally apply it. The horticultural world is no different. We look forward to research supporting additional predictive metrics that allow us to take advantage of the full benefits of high-performance LED and controls technologies. In the meantime, the established standards described here allow for energy efficient and safe cultivation facilities where growers can confidently produce more with less.
Now that cannabis edibles have been legalized nationally in Canada, many existing and aspiring license holders have been surprised to discover that they must comply with food safety regulations. This became crystal clear when Health Canada published their Good Production Practices Guide For Cannabis in August 2019.
With this development, it should be obvious to everyone that Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certifications are simply not enough.
HACCP is a methodology that is all about identifying biological, chemical and physical hazards and determining how they will be controlled to mitigate the risk of injury to humans. Recently, bio-terrorism and food fraud hazards have been added to the list and it is a good idea to address quality hazards as well.
The process of developing a HACCP program involves identifying these hazards with respect to ingredients, materials, packaging, processes and cross-contamination points (explicitly required in Canada only). However, it is a specific ingredient hazard that I’d like to talk about here.
As this market has emerged, I’ve met with many cannabis companies as the onerous levels of knowledge and effort required to build and maintain an effective HACCP program manually has dawned upon the industry. Many are looking for technological solutions to quickly solve this problem. During these discussions, a curious fact has emerged that set off the food safety alarm klaxons around here.
Most people alive today are too young to remember this but, with few exceptions, the standardization of ingredients is a relatively modern phenomenon. It used to be that the fat content of your milk varied from season to season and cow to cow. Over time, the food industry standardized so that, amazingly, you can now choose between milks with either 1% or 2% fat, a level of precision that would border on miraculous to someone born in the early 20th century.
The standardization of ingredients is important in terms of both quality and safety. Take alcohol for example. We know that a shot of spirits generally contains 40% alcohol. Different products may vary from this standard but, if I pour a shot of my favourite Bowmore No.1 single malt in Canada or Tasmania, this year or 10 years from now, I can expect a consistent effect from the 40% alcohol content of the quantity I’ve imbibed.
Imagine a world in which this was not the case, where one shot would be 40% but the next might be 80%. Things could get out of control quite easily at the 80% level so, to avoid this, distillers monitor and blend their product to ensure they achieve the 40% target, which is called the “standardization marker”.
With respect to cannabis, the obvious standardization marker is THC. During the manufacturing process, edibles manufacturers do not normally add cannabis flower directly into their products but instead add a THC concentrate produced during previous production steps. However, we’ve found that the wisdom of standardizing these concentrates has not yet dawned upon many in the industry, which is alarming at best and dangerous at worst.
The reason for this is that, since cannabis is inherently a heterogeneous plant, one cannot precisely achieve a particular marker value so the outcome of the concentration process is variable. The food industry long ago overcame this problem by blending or diluting to achieve a consistent marker concentration, but the cannabis industry has not yet adopted this advance.
The cannabis edibles industry is still immature and it will take time to bring all the necessary risk mitigation processes into place but one excellent place to start is to seriously consider standardizing concentrates to a THC marker.Instead, manufacturers simply keep track of the strength of each batch of concentrate and then adjust the quantity added to their recipes to achieve the desired THC content. This seems logical on the surface but presents a serious risk from the HACCP perspective, namely a chemical hazard, “Excessive psychoactive compound concentrations due to human error at levels that may be injurious to human health”.
The reality is that workers make mistakes, which is why it is imperative to mitigate the risk of human error insomuch as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to standardize to avoid the scenario where a worker, faced with a row of identical containers that are differentiated only by a tiny bit of text, accidentally grabs the wrong bottle. The error isn’t caught until the product has been shipped, consumed, and reports of hospital visits start coming in after the authorities trace the problem back to you. You must bear the costs of the recall, your reputation has been decimated and your company is floundering on the financial rocks.
US-based Drip More, LP recently found this out the hard way after consumers complained that their product tasted bad, bitter and/or harsh. An investigation determined that excessive nicotine content was the source of the problem and a voluntary recall was initiated. Affected product that had already been sold in 26 states. The costs of this recall have not been tallied but they will be staggering.
The cannabis edibles industry is still immature and it will take time to bring all the necessary risk mitigation processes into place but one excellent place to start is to seriously consider standardizing concentrates to a THC marker. This strategy is cheap, easy and you’ll never be sorry.
With legalization rapidly increasing across states, the cannabis market is exploding. And with estimates of sales in the billions, it’s no surprise that greenhouses and grow rooms are emerging everywhere. As growers and extracting facilities continue to expand one important consideration that most tend to underestimate, is how flooring can impact both their production and product. Bare concrete is often a popular choice in cannabis facilities, as there are typically very minimal costs−if any at all−associated with preparing it for use. However, concrete floors can pose unique challenges when left untreated, which could inadvertently create unforeseen problems and unexpected costs.
Understanding the Risks of Bare Concrete Flooring
Whether a facility is growing or extracting, the proper flooring can play a critical role in helping maintain optimal safety and sanitation standards, while simultaneously contributing to production. That’s why its important for growers and extractors to know and understand the potential risks associated with bare concrete.
Concrete is porous: While concrete is a solid material, people may forget that it is porous. Unfortunately, these pores can absorb liquids and harbor small particles that spill on the floor. They create perfect hiding places for bacteria and other pathogens to proliferate. Pathogens can then contaminate product within the facility, causing a halt on production, and/or a potential product recall. This can incur unexpected costs associated with shutdown time and loss of product.
Concrete can be damp: When in a facility with an untreated concrete floor, at times the slab can feel slightly wet or damp to touch. This is due to moisture within the concrete that can eventually work its way up to the surface of the slab. When this happens, items that are placed on top of the floor can be damaged by trapped moisture above the slab and below the object. When this happens, if a product is not protected properly, it can be damaged.
Concrete is dark and unreflective: An untreated concrete slab can often make a room feel dark and it does not reflect lighting within the room. This can result in the need for extra lights and electricity to properly grow cannabis.
Concrete lacks texture: When working in areas where water and other liquids can fall to the ground and accumulate, flooring with traction can play a key role in helping aid against slip and fall incidents. Untreated concrete typically does not provide sufficient texture and can become very slippery when wet.
The Benefits of Bare Concrete Flooring
While the previously mentioned risks can be associated with bare concrete flooring, there is an upside to the situation! Concrete is the perfect substrate for adding a coating that is built to withstand the industry’s demands.
With the application of a fluid-applied or resinous floor coating, the risks of bare concrete flooring can be mitigated. There are a variety of resin and fluid-based coating systems that can be applied, such as:
Epoxy and Urethane Systems
Urethane Mortar Systems
Decorative Quartz Systems
Decorative Flake Systems
These durable coatings have numerous benefits and can offer:
Protection against the proliferation bacteria and other pathogens: Unlike porous concrete, a smooth and virtually seamless floor coating eliminates the little crevices where pathogens can grow. This in turn helps aid against the growth of bacteria, keeping hygiene standards at the forefront and grow rooms in full operations.
Protection against moisture damage: As moisture within the concrete can move upward to the surface of the slab, there are moisture mitigation coating systems, that keep it trapped below the surface, thus helping toprotect items placed on the floor.
Brighter spaces and light reflection: Installing a floor coating that is light in color, such as white or light gray, can help brighten any space. The benefits of this are twofold: First, it can help with visibility, helping employees navigate the space safely. Secondly, light reflectivity of the flooring improves lighting efficiency, resulting in fewer light fixtures and smaller electric costs.
Texture options to help aid against slip and fall incidents: Floor coating systems can offer a variety of texture options−from light grit to heavy grit−depending on how much accumulated water and foot traffic the area receives. Without additional texture in wet areas, slip and fall incidents and injuries are inevitable.
A wide range of colors and decorative systems: These coating systems can be designed to match the aesthetics of the building or corporate colors. Some manufacturers even offer color matching upon request. When it comes to colors, the options are virtually endless.
Choosing the Right Flooring: Considering Bare Concrete
Choosing the right flooring for a cannabis greenhouse or processing facility requires important consideration as every grow room and greenhouse is different. Bare concrete is a popular flooring option for manufacturing and processing facilities across industries, however, as discussed, it can pose unique challenges due to its innate nature. That said, by taking the right steps to ensure that the concrete substrate is properly sealed, it can then be an effective and hygienic flooring option, offering high durability and a longer life cycle.
Across the country and across the world, governments that legalize cannabis implement increasingly rigorous requirements for laboratory testing. Helping to protect patients and consumers from contaminants, these requirements involve a slew of lab tests, including quantifying the levels of microbial contaminants, pathogens, mold and heavy metals.
Cannabis and hemp have a unique ability to accumulate elements found in soil, which is why these plants can be used as effective tools for bioremediation. Because cannabis plants have the ability to absorb potentially toxic and dangerous elements found in the soil they grow in, lab testing regulations often include the requirement for heavy metals testing, such as Cadmium, Lead, Mercury, Arsenic and others.
In addition to legal cannabis markets across the country, the USDA announced the establishment of the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program, following the enactment of the 2018 Farm Bill, essentially legalizing hemp. This announcement comes with information for hemp testing labs, including testing and sampling guidelines. While the information available on the USDA’s website only touches on testing for THC, required to be no greater than 0.3% dry weight concentration, more testing guidelines in the future are sure to include a discussion of heavy metals testing.
In an application note produced by Agilent Technologies, Inc., the Agilent 7800 ICP-MS was used to analyze 25 elements in a variety of cannabis and hemp-derived products. The study was conducted using that Agilent 7800 ICP-MS, which includes Agilent’s proprietary High Matrix Introduction (HMI) system. The analysis was automated by using the Agilent SPS 4 autosampler.
The instrument operating conditions can be found in Table 1. In this study, the HMI dilution factor was 4x and the analytes were all acquired in the Helium collision mode. Using this methodology, the Helium collision mode consistently reduces or completely eliminates all common polyatomic interferences using kinetic energy discrimination (KED).
As a comparison, Arsenic and Selenium were also acquired via the MassHunter Software using half-mass correction, which corrects for overlaps due to doubly charged rare earth elements. This software also collects semiquantitative or screening data across the entire mass region, called Quick Scan, showing data for elements that may not be present in the original calibration standards.
SRMs and Samples
Standard reference materials (SRMs) analyzed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) were used to verify the sample prep digestion process. Those included NIST 1547 Peach Leaves, NIST 1573a Tomato Leaves and NIST 1575 Pine Needles. NIST 1640a Natural Water was also used to verify the calibration.
Samples used in the study include cannabis flower, cannabis tablets, a cannabidiol (CBD) tincture, chewable candies and hemp-derived cream.
Calibration standards were prepared using a mix of 1% HNO3 and 0.5% HCl. Sodium, Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium and Iron were calibrated from 0.5 to 10 ppm. Mercury was calibrated from 0.05 to 2 ppb. All the other elements were calibrated from 0.5 to 100 ppb.
After weighing the samples (roughly 0.15 g of cannabis plant and between 0.3 to 0.5 g of cannabis product) into quartz vessels, 4 mL HNO3 and 1 mL HCl were added and the samples were microwave digested using the program found in Table 2.
HCI was included to ensure the stability of Mercury and Silver in solution. They diluted the digested samples in the same acid mix as the standards. SRMs were prepared using the same method to verify sample digestion and to confirm the recovery of analytes.
Four samples were prepared in triplicate and fortified with the Agilent Environmental Mix Spike solution prior to the analysis. All samples, spikes and SRMs were diluted 5x before testing to reduce the acid concentration.
The calibration curves for Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Mercury can be found in Figure 1 and a summary of the calibration data is in Table 3. For quality control, the SRM NIST 1645a Natural Water was used for the initial calibration verification standard. Recoveries found in Table 4 are for all the certified elements present in SRM NIST 1640a. The mean recoveries and concentration range can also be found in Table 4. All the continuing calibration solution recoveries were within 10% of the expected value.
Internal Standard Stability
Figure 2 highlights the ISTD signal stability for the sequence of 58 samples analyzed over roughly four hours. The recoveries for all samples were well within 20 % of the value in the initial calibration standard.
In Table 5, you’ll find that three SRMs were tested to verify the digestion process. The mean results for most elements agreed with the certified concentrations, however the results for Arsenic in NIST 1547 and Selenium in both NIST 1547 and 1573a did not show good agreement due to interreferences formed from the presence of doubly-charged ions
Some plant materials can contain high levels of rare earth elements, which have low second ionization potentials, so they tend to form doubly-charged ions. As the quadrupole Mass Spec separates ions based on their mass-to-charge ratio, the doubly-charged ions appear at half of their true mass. Because of that, a handful of those doubly-charged ions caused overlaps leading to bias in the results for Arsenic and Selenium in samples that have high levels of rare earth elements. Using half mass correction, the ICP-MS corrects for these interferences, which can be automatically set up in the MassHunter software. The shaded cells in Table 5 highlight the half mass corrected results for Arsenic and Selenium, demonstrating recoveries in agreement with the certified concentrations.
In Table 6, you’ll find the quantitative results for cannabis tablets and the CBD tincture. Although the concentrations of Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Cobalt are well below current regulations’ maximum levels, they do show up relatively high in the cannabis tablets sample. Both Lead and Cadmium also had notably higher levels in the CBD tincture as well.
A spike recovery test was utilized to check the accuracy of the method for sample analysis. The spike results are in Table 6.
Using the 7800 ICP-MS instrument and the High Matrix Introduction system, labs can routinely analyze samples that contain high and very variable matrix levels. Using the automated HMI system, labs can reduce the need to manually handle samples, which can reduce the potential for contamination during sample prep. The MassHunter Quick Scan function shows a complete analysis of the heavy metals in the sample, including data reported for elements not included in the calibration standards.
The half mass correction for Arsenic and Selenium allows a lab to accurately determine the correct concentrations. The study showed the validity of the microwave sample prep method with good recovery results for the SRMs. Using the Agilent 7800 ICP-MS in a cannabis or hemp testing lab can be an effective and efficient way to test cannabis products for heavy metals. This test can be used in various stages of the supply chain as a tool for quality controls in the cannabis and hemp markets.
Disclaimer: Agilent products and solutions are intended to be used for cannabis quality control and safety testing in laboratories where such use is permitted under state/country law.
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