According to a press release published on April 3, Keystone State Testing (doing business as Dakota State Testing) became the first laboratory authorized to test cannabis in North Dakota. The lab also obtained their ISO 17025 accreditation for cannabis testing from the American Association of Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), which is another first achievement for cannabis testing in the state of North Dakota.
Dr. Kelly Greenland, chief science officer at Keystone State Testing, says the North Dakota Department of Health set a high standard for the cannabis lab testing industry in the state. “Keystone State Testing is once again proud to of this monumental achievement and critical milestone in the company’s history to have met the highest levels of standards set forth by both A2LA and the North Dakota Department of Health,” says Greenland. “Keystone chose A2LA as its Accreditation Body due to their reputation in the industry, their diverse clientele, and the quality of their assessors. A2LA’s assessors have spent decades in their respective fields, which helps to ensure that Keystone is providing the best services possible to their clients, regulators and patients.”
Keystone State Testing’s ISO 17025 accreditation scope covers 11 testing methods at their facility in Fargo, North Dakota. Those methods include: Cannabinoid potency analysis, cannabinoid profile, moisture content, residual solvents, water activity, along with microbiological tests like total yeast and mold count, E. coli, Salmonella, total aerobic microbial count, among others.
Across the country, there is a patchwork of regulatory requirements that vary from state to state. Regulations focus on limiting microbial impurities (such as mold) present in cannabis in order for consumers to receive a safe product. When cultivators in Colorado and Nevada submit their cannabis product to laboratories for testing, they are striving to meet total yeast and mold count (TYMC) requirements.In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.
TYMC refers to the number of colony forming units present per gram (CFU/g) of cannabis material tested. CFU is a method of quantifying and reporting the amount of live yeast or mold present in the cannabis material being tested. This number is determined by plating the sample, which involves spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish, followed by an incubation period, which provides the ideal conditions for yeast and mold to grow and multiply. If the yeast and mold cells are efficiently distributed on a plate, it is assumed that each live cell will give rise to a single colony. Each colony produces a visible spot on the plate and this represents a single CFU. Counting the numbers of CFU gives an accurate estimate on the number of viable cells in the sample.
The plate count methodology for TYMC is standardized and widely accepted in a variety of industries including the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. The FDA has published guidelines that specify limits on total yeast and mold counts ranging from 10 to 100,000 CFU/g. In cannabis testing, a TYMC count of 10,000 is commonly used. TYMC is also approved by the AOAC for testing a variety of products, such as food and cosmetics, for yeast and mold. It is a fairly easy technique to perform requiring minimal training, and the overall cost tends to be relatively low. It can be utilized to differentiate between dead and live cells, since only viable living cells produce colonies.
There is a 24 to 48-hour incubation period associated with TYMC and this impedes speed of testing. Depending on the microbial levels in a sample, additional dilution of a cannabis sample being tested may be required in order to count the cells accurately. TYMC is not species-specific, allowing this method to cover a broad range of yeast and molds, including those that are not considered harmful. Studies conducted on cannabis products have identified several harmful species of yeast and mold, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus, Penicillium and Botrytis Cinerea. Non-pathogenic molds have also been shown to be a source of allergic hypersensitivity reactions.The ability of TYMC to detect only viable living cells from such a broad range of yeast and mold species may be considered an advantage in the newly emerging cannabis industry.
After California voted to legalize recreational marijuana, state regulatory agencies began exploring different cannabis testing methods to implement in order to ensure clean cannabis for the large influx of consumers.
Unlike Colorado, California is considering a different route and the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus). While Aspergillus can also be cultured and plated, it is difficult to differentiate morphological characteristics of each species on a plate and the risk of misidentification is high. Therefore, positive identification would require the use of DNA-based methods such as polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR. PCR is a molecular biology technique that can detect species-specific strains of mold that are considered harmful through the amplification and analysis of DNA sequences present in cannabis. The standard PCR testing method can be divided into four steps:
The double stranded DNA in the cannabis sample is denatured by heat. This refers to splitting the double strand into single strands.
Primers, which are short single-stranded DNA sequences, are added to align with the corresponding section of the DNA. These primers can be directly or indirectly labeled with fluorescence.
DNA polymerase is introduced to extend the sequence, which results in two copies of the original double stranded DNA. DNA polymerases are enzymes that create DNA molecules by assembling nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA.
Once the double stranded DNA is created, the intensity of the resulting fluorescence signal can uncover the presence of specific species of harmful Aspergillus mold, such as fumigatus.
These steps can be repeated several times to amplify a very small amount of DNA in a sample. The primers will only bind to the corresponding sequence of DNA that matches that primer and this allows PCR to be very specific.
PCR is a very sensitive and selective method with many applications. However, the instrumentation utilized can be very expensive, which would increase the overall cost of a compliance test. The high sensitivity of the method for the target DNA means that there are possibilities for a false positive. This has implications in the cannabis industry where samples that test positive for yeast and mold may need to go through a remediation process to kill the microbial impurities. These remediated samples may still fail a PCR-based microbial test due to the presence of the DNA. Another issue with the high selectivity of this method is that other species of potentially harmful yeast and mold would not even be detected. PCR is a technique that requires skill and training to perform and this, in turn, adds to the high overall cost of the test.
Both TYMC and PCR have associated advantages and disadvantages and it is important to take into account the cost, speed, selectivity, and sensitivity of each method. The differences between the two methodologies would lead to a large disparity in testing standards amongst labs in different states. In a nascent industry, it is prudent for state regulators to reference specific testing methodologies so that an industry standard can be established.
As both recreational and medical cannabis legalization continues to progress across the country, each state is tasked with developing regulatory requirements to ensure that customers and patients receive clean cannabis for consumption. This requires cannabis to undergo laboratory testing that analyzes the presence of microbial impurities including yeast and mold.
Some states, such as Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts use total yeast and mold count testing (TYMC) and set a maximum yeast and mold count threshold that cultivators must fall below. Other states, such as California, require the detection of species-specific strains of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus), which requires analyzing the DNA of a cannabis sample through polymerase chain reaction testing, also known as PCR.
Differences in state regulations can lead to different microbiological techniques implemented for testing.Before diving in further, it is important to understand the scientific approach. Laboratory testing requirements for cannabis can be separated into two categories: analytical chemistry methods and microbiological methods.
Analytical chemistry is the science of qualitatively and quantitatively determining the chemical components of a substance, and usually consists of some kind of separation followed by detection. Analytical methods are used to uncover the potency of cannabis, analyze the terpene profile and to detect the presence of pesticides, chemical residues, residuals solvents, heavy metals and mycotoxins. Analytical testing methods are performed first before proceeding to microbiological methods.
Microbiological methods dive deeper into cannabis at a cellular level to uncover microbial impurities such as yeast, mold and bacteria. The techniques utilized in microbiological methods are very different from traditional analytical chemistry methods in both the way they are performed and target of the analysis. Differences in state regulations can lead to different microbiological techniques implemented for testing. There are a variety of cell and molecular biology techniques that can be used for detecting microbial impurities, but most can be separated into two categories:
Methods to determine total microbial cell numbers, which typically utilizes cell culture, which involves growing cells in favorable conditions and plating, spreading the sample evenly in a container like a petri dish. The total yeast and mold count (TYMC) test follows this method.
Molecular methods intended to detect specific species of mold, such as harmful aspergillus mold strains, which typically involves testing for the presence of unique DNA sequences such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).
Among states that have legalized some form of cannabis use and put forth regulations, there appears to be a broad consensus that the laboratories should test for potency (cannabinoids concentration), pesticides (or chemical residues) and residual solvents at a minimum. On the other hand, microbial testing requirements, particularly for mold, appear to vary greatly from state to state. Oregon requires random testing for mold and mildew without any details on test type. In Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Illinois and Massachusetts, regulations explicitly state the use of TYMC for the detection of mold. In California, the recently released emergency regulations require testing for specific species of Aspergillus mold (A. fumigatus, A. flavus, A. niger and A. terreus), which are difficult to differentiate on a plate and would require a DNA-based approach. Since there are differences in costs associated and data produced by these methods, this issue will impact product costs for cultivators, which will affect cannabis prices for consumers.
As the operations manager at Los Sueños Farms, the largest outdoor cannabis farm in the country, I was tasked with the challenge of finding a yeast and mold remediation treatment method that would ensure safe and healthy cannabis for all of our customers while complying with stringent regulations.
While outdoor cannabis is not inherently moldy, outdoor farms are vulnerable to changing weather conditions. Wind transports spores, which can cause mold. Each spore is a colony forming unit if plated at a lab, even if not germinated in the final product. In other words, perfectly good cannabis can easily fail microbial testing with the presence of benign spores.
If all of those landed on cannabis it would be enough to cause over 450 pounds of cannabis to fail testing, even if those spores remained ungerminated.
It should also be known that almost every food item purchased in a store goes through some type of remediation method to be considered safe for sale. Cannabis is finally becoming a legitimized industry and we will see regulations that make cannabis production look more like food production each year.
Regulations in Colorado (as well as Nevada and Canada) require cannabis to have a total yeast and mold count (TYMC) of ≤ 10,000 colony forming units per gram. We needed a TYMC treatment method that was safe, reliable, efficient and suitable for a large-scale operation. Our main problem was the presence of fungal spores, not living, growing mold.
Below is a short list of the pros and cons of each treatment method I compiled after two years of research:
Autoclave: This is the same technology used to sterilize tattoo needles and medical equipment. Autoclave uses heat and pressure to kill living things. While extremely effective, readily available and fiscally reasonable, this method is time-consuming and cannot treat large batches. It also utilizes moisture, which increases mold risk. The final product may experience decarboxylation and a change in color, taste and smell.
Dry Heat: Placing cannabis in dry heat is a very inexpensive method that is effective at reducing mold and yeast. However, it totally ruins product unless you plan to extract it.
Gamma Ray Radiation: By applying gamma ray radiation, microbial growth is reduced in plants without affecting potency. This is a very effective, fast and scalable method that doesn’t cause terpene loss or decarboxylation. However, it uses ionizing radiation that can create new chemical compounds not present before, some of which can be cancer-causing. The Department of Homeland Security will never allow U.S. cannabis farmers to use this method, as it relies on a radioactive isotope to create the gamma rays.
Gas Treatment: (Ozone, Propylene Oxide, Ethylene Oxide, Sulfur Dioxide) Treatment with gas is inexpensive, readily available and treats the entire product. Gas treatment is time consuming and must be handled carefully, as all of these gases are toxic to humans. Ozone is challenging to scale while PPO, EO and SO2 are very scalable. Gases require special facilities to apply and it’s important to note that gases such as PPO and EO are carcinogenic. These methods introduce chemicals to cannabis and can affect the end product by reducing terpenes, aroma and flavor.
Hydrogen Peroxide: Spraying cannabis plants with a hydrogen peroxide mixture can reduce yeast and mold. However, moisture is increased, which can cause otherwise benign spores to germinate. This method only treats the surface level of the plant and is not an effective remediation treatment. It also causes extreme oxidation, burning the cannabis and removing terpenes.
Microwave: This method is readily available for small-scale use and is non-chemical based and non-ionizing. However, it causes uneven heating, burning product, which is damaging to terpenes and greatly reduces quality. This method can also result in a loss of moisture. Microwave treatment is difficult to scale and is not optimal for large cultivators.
Radio Frequency: This method is organic, non-toxic, non-ionizing and non-chemical based. It is also scalable and effective; treatment time is very fast and it treats the entire product at once. There is no decarboxylation or potency loss with radio frequency treatment. Minimal moisture loss and terpene loss may result. This method has been proven by a decade of use in the food industry and will probably become the standard in large-scale treatment facilities.
Steam Treatment: Water vapor treatment is effective in other industries, scalable, organic and readily available. This method wets cannabis, introducing further mold risk, and only treats the product surface. It also uses heat, which can cause decarboxylation, and takes a long time to implement. This is not an effective method to reduce TYMC in cannabis, even though it works very well for other agricultural products
Extraction: Using supercritical gas such as butane, heptane, carbon dioxide or hexane in the cannabis extraction process is the only method of remediation approved by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and is guaranteed to kill almost everything. It’s also readily available and easy to access. However, this time-consuming method will change your final product into a concentrate instead of flower and usually constitutes a high profit loss.
UV Light: This is an inexpensive and readily available method that is limited in efficacy. UV light is only effective on certain organisms and does not work well for killing mold spores. It also only kills what the light is touching, unless ozone is captured from photolysis of oxygen near the UV lamp. It is time consuming and very difficult to scale.
After exhaustively testing and researching all treatment methods, we settled on radio frequency treatment as the best option. APEX, a radio frequency treatment machine created by Ziel, allowed us to treat 100 pounds of cannabis in an hour – a critical factor when harvesting 36,000 plants during the October harvest.
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