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Third-Party Cannabis Safety Audits & How to Prepare in 7 Steps

By Tyler Williams
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Unlike the food industry, the cannabis industry is still in its infancy. Which means there is not a push from retailers demanding cannabis farmers, extractors or manufacturers to get third-party audits. In fact, most grow operations supply into their own dispensaries. So why should a cannabis farmer, extractor or manufacturer get a third-party audit? Third-party audits are crucial to maintaining product safety and quality by providing a third set of eyes to verify what is working and what is not. Besides regulatory requirements and customers requiring your facility to get a third-party audit, there are numerous other benefits to receiving an audit. Some of these benefits include:

  • Improvement to product safety
  • Improvement to product quality and consistency
  • Meeting regulatory compliance
  • Eliminating potential risks and possible recalls
  • Marketing advantages over competitors who are not audited by a third-party
  • Improvement to consumer confidence and an increase to brand loyalty

How to Prepare for a Third-Party Audit

Working for a certification body, I am in the unique position to see numerous sites go through the certification process. In this position I have seen both extremes: Sites that spend 6-8 months and a lot of resources preparing for an audit, as well as sites that wait until the day before to even look at the audit standard. Unfortunately, the latter is almost always going to fail the audit. Here are seven steps for preparing for your next third-party audit.“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”– Benjamin Franklin

  1. Start Preparing Early

Think of your third-party audit as a college exam one month away. You could start studying for the exam now and get a real understanding of the material or you could wait until the day before to start your no-sleep, energy drink-fueled, 24-hour cram session. We all know which preparation method will get a better score on the exam. Now let’s apply that same strategy to your third-party audit. Once you have decided what audit is best for your site and have those specific standards in your hand, the clock starts ticking and you should already be preparing for the audit, whether it is one month or six months away.

  1. Get Management Commitment

It is essential to the entire cannabis safety and quality system to have commitment from top down. Without this, the site will not get the resources (people, equipment, money, time, etc.) they need to pass a third-party audit. Management commitment is so important that it is often seen as its own section in most modern audit standards. It is very easy for third-party auditors to identify when there is a lack of management commitment in a site. Therefore, if you don’t get management commitment, then you are already starting off the audit on a bad note.

  1. Create a To-Do-ListGMP

Think of the entire audit checklist or standard as your long to-do list. Some things, like attaining a certificate of analysis (COA) from a supplier, may only need to be done annually. While other things, such as ensuring employees are following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), will need to be done continuously throughout day to day operations. Go through the audit checklist and separate what needs to be done annually, semiannually, quarterly, monthly and continuously throughout day to day operations. This will give you a list with all of the frequencies of each different requirement.

  1. Teamwork“Teamwork makes the dream work, but a vision becomes a nightmare when the leader has a big dream and a bad team.” – John C. Maxwell

The preparation of an audit should never rest on the shoulders of one person. Yet this is something I tend to see too often in both food and cannabis facilities alike. Your site should establish a cannabis safety and quality team of multidiscipline personnel that have an impact on product safety and quality. Once the team is established, various tasks from the to-do-list can be disbursed among all the members of the team. Collaboration is key to successfully preparing for a third-party audit, especially when the timelines are very stringent.

  1. Training

Training is essential to preparing for your third-party audit. This is what closes the gaps between what the safety and quality department have developed and what your front-line employees are applying. All employees should know what part of the audit standard applies to them. Additionally, employees should be trained on interview questions that the auditor might ask them during the audit. Helping them prepare for these types of questions will help ease their nerves and allow them to answer the questions with self-assurance when it comes time to the actual audit.

  1. Conduct Internal Audits

Conducting internal audits is not only a great way to prepare for your third-party audit, it’s a requirement. You should always use the audit checklist to observe your documents and facility to see where there are gaps. If possible, the person or team conducting the internal audit should never review their own work. Additionally, all issues or non-conformances should be noted, evaluated, corrected and closed out.

  1. Third-Party Pre-Assessment or Mock Audit (Optional)

A third-party pre-assessment or mock audit is the closest thing you can get to an actual audit. This is where a company would come in and evaluate your site to the specific standards and give a formal report over any deficiencies found during the assessment and how to fix them. This is a great way to test your preparedness before the actual audit.

Pesticide Testing: Methods, Strategies & Sampling

By Charles Deibel
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Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus, Technical Services Analyst, Dr. Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, Andy Sechler, Lab Director, Toby Astill, Senior Business Development Leader at Perkin Elmer and Charles Deibel, President of Deibel Cannabis Labs.


Pesticides represent the leading cause of batch failures in the cannabis industry. They are also the hardest tests to run in the laboratory, even one equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. The best instruments on the market are HPLC and GC dual mass spectrometer detectors, called “HPLC-qqq”, “GC-qqq,” or just triple quads.

As non-lab people, we envision a laboratory that can take a cannabis sample, inject it into a triple quad and have the machine quickly and effortlessly print out a report of pesticide values. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The process is much more hands on and complex.In the current chemistry lab, trained analysts have to first program the triple quads to look for the pesticides of concern; in cannabis pesticide testing, this is done by programming the first of two mass spectrometers to identify a single (precursor) mass that is characteristic of the pesticide in question. For BCC requirements in California, this has to be done for all 66 pesticides, one at a time.

Next, these precursor ions are degraded into secondary chemicals called the “product” ions, also called transition ions. The second of the two mass spectrometers is used to analyze these transition ions. This process is graphed and the resulting spectrum is analyzed by trained chemists in the lab, pesticide by pesticide, for all the samples processed that day. If the lab analyzes 10 samples, that translates to 660 spectra to analyze (66 pesticides x 10 samples). When looking at the spectra for each pesticide, the analysts must compare the ratios of the precursor ions to the product ions.

Confirmation Testing

If these spectra indicate a given pesticide may be present, the chemists must then compare the ratios between the precursor and the products. If these ratios are not what is expected, then the analyst must perform confirmation testing to prove the precursor mass either is or is not the pesticide of concern. If the ratios are not what is expected, it means the molecule is similar to the pesticide in question, but may not be that pesticide. This confirmatory testing is key to producing accurate results and not failing batches when dealing with closely related chemicals. This process of analyzing spectra is done in all labs that are performing pesticide testing. In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. 

The need for this type of confirmation testing doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does, it will take longer than our targeted three-day turn-around time. In the picture above, one precursor mass is ionized into several product masses; but only two are large enough to be used for comparison. In this hypothetical situation, two product masses are produced for every one precursor, the expected ion abundance ratio should be less than 30%. When performing any confirmatory testing, if the ion abundance ratio is >30%, it means the original precursor molecule was not the pesticide of concern. For example, if the ion abundance ratio was 50%, then the original molecule broke down into too many parts; it was not the pesticide we were looking for. This ion abundance ratio threshold was established by FANCO, the international organization that sets guidelines for all pesticide testing.

Testing Strategies

Methodology: In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. The identification of the precursor mass and product ions are not always published, leaving labs to research which ions should be used. This adds to the potential for differences between lab results. Once selected, labs should validate their research, through a series of experiments to ensure the correct precursor and transition (product) ions are being used in the method.

Sample Preparation: Beyond the time-consuming work that is required to develop sound pesticide methods, the extraction step is absolutely critical for credible results. If the pesticides aren’t fully extracted from the cannabis product, then the results will be lower than expected. Sample preparations are often not standardized between labs, so unless a given extraction technique is validated for accuracy, there is the possibility for differences between labs.

Getting a Representative Sample

The current California recommended amount of sample is one gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary greatly and it is entirely likely that two different one gram samples can have two different results for pesticides. Has the entire plant been evenly coated with exactly the same amount of pesticide onto every square inch of its leaves? No, probably not. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample, by taking several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch.

Sampling Plans: We can learn a lot from the manufacturing and sampling best practices developed by the food industry through the years. If a food manufacturer is concerned with the possibility of having a bacteria pathogen, like Salmonella, in their finished product, they test the samples coming off their production lines at a statistically relevant level. This practice (theory) is called the sampling plan and it can easily be adapted to the cannabis industry. The basic premise is that the more you test, the higher your likelihood of catching a contaminate. Envision a rectangular swimming pool, but instead of water, it’s filled with jello. In this gelatinous small pool, 100 pennies are suspended at varying levels. The pennies represent the contaminates.

Is the pool homogenized? Is jello evenly represented in the entire pool? Yes. 

Is your concentrate evenly distributed in the extraction vessel? Yes. The question is, where are the pennies in that extraction vessel? The heavy metals, the microbial impurities and the pesticides should be evenly distributed in the extraction vessel but they may not be evenly represented in each sample that is collected. Unfortunately, this is the bane of the manufacturing industry and it’s the unfortunate reality in the food industry. If you take one random cup of jello, will you find the penny? Probably not. But it you take numerous 1 cup samples from random areas within the batch, you increase your chances of finding the contaminate. This is the best approach for sampling any cannabis product.

The best way to approve a batch of cannabis product is to take several random samples and composite them. But you may need to run several samples from this composite to truly understand what is in the batch. In the swimming pool example, if you take one teaspoon scoop, will you find one of the pennies? The best way to find one of the pennies is to take numerous random samples, composite them and increase the number of tests you perform at the lab. This should be done on any new vendor/cultivator you work with, in order to help establish the safety of the product.

Ellice Ogle headshot

Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace

By Ellice Ogle
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Ellice Ogle headshot

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.

Designing Your Continuing Cannabis Education Program

By RJ Starr
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As many states’ medical cannabis programs are already in full swing and several are launching or nearing their one-year or biennial maturation periods, medical cannabis dispensaries and cannabis cultivation and processing facilities should be fine-tuning their Continuing Cannabis Education Program, or CCEP, and be ready for inspection by state agencies.

While states with medical cannabis programs administer them through various agencies such as Department of Medicine/Health, Department of Pharmacy, Department of Commerce, Alcoholic Beverage Control, each has their own minimum requirements for continuing education in the medical cannabis space, and each structures their program in the direction within which that particular regulatory agency leans. Each state’s personality also brings an influential component as well; for example, a state with a highly visible opioid crisis may place greater emphasis on substance abuse training.

Suffice it to say that while there is certainly insight to be gained from knowing your particular state, there are certain elements of an ongoing professional development program that should be considered in each CCEP. This article will explore a few of the elements integral to any successful human capital and professional development plan from a vantage of compliance, and will offer some insight into the exceptional training methodology designed by Midwest Compassion Center and Bloom Medicinals.

There are a number of key considerations in developing a Continuing Cannabis Education Program, and a thoughtful CCEP should be developed specifically to meet the needs of both the organization and its employees. This can be done by a needs assessment consisting of three levels: organizational, occupational, and individual assessments.

  1. Needs assessment and learning objectives. This part of the framework development asks you to consider what kind of training is needed in your organization. Once you have determined the training needed, you can set learning objectives to measure at the end of the training.
    1. Organizational assessment. In this type of needs assessment, we can determine the skills, knowledge and abilities our cannabis dispensaries need in order to meet their strategic objectives. This type of assessment considers things such as changing laws, demographics and technology trends. Overall, this type of assessment looks at how the organization as a whole can handle its weaknesses while promoting strengths.
    2. Occupational (task) assessment. This type of assessment looks at the specific tasks, skills, knowledge and abilities required of our employees to do the jobs necessary within our dispensaries.
    3. Individual assessment. An individual assessment looks at the performance of an individual employee and determines what training should be accomplished for that individual.
  2. Consideration of learning styles. Making sure to teach to a variety of learning styles is important to development of training programs.
  3. Delivery mode. What is the best way to get your message across? Is classroom or web-based training more appropriate, or should one-on-one mentoring be used? Successful training programs should incorporate a variety of delivery methods.
  4. How much money do you have to spend on this training? This does not only include the cost of materials, but the cost of time. Consideration should also be given to the costs associated with not investing in training: CFO asks CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?” CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”
  5. Delivery style. Will the training be self-paced or instructor led? What kinds of discussions and interactions can be developed in conjunction with this training? The delivery style must take into account people’s individual learning styles. A balance of lectures, discussions, role-playing, and activities that solidify concepts are considered part of delivery style.
  6. Audience. Who will be part of this training? Do you have a mix of roles, such as accounting people and marketing people? What are the job responsibilities of these individuals, and how can you make the training relevant to their individual jobs? The audience for the training is an important aspect when developing your CCEP. This can allow the training to be better developed to meet the needs and the skills of a particular group of people.
  7. Content. What needs to be taught? How will you sequence the information? The content obviously is an important consideration. Learning objectives and goals for the training should be established and articulated before content is developed.
  8. Timelines. How long will it take to develop the training? Is there a deadline for training to be completed, and if so, what risk analysis can be used to determine the consequences of not meeting that deadline? After content is developed, understanding time constraints is an important aspect. Will the training take one hour or a day to deliver? What is the timeline consideration in terms of when people should take the training?
  9. Communication. How will employees know the training is available to them? Letting people know when and where the training will take place is part of communication.
  10. Measuring effectiveness. How will you know if your training worked? What ways will you use to measure this? The final aspect of developing a training framework is to consider how it will be measured. At the end, how will you know if the trainees learned what they needed to learn?

A thorough review of your state’s rules and regulations should take place quarterly, with one or more specific employees designated to stay abreast of changes. If your regulatory authority has implemented requirements that trainings must be approved in advance, know that as well, and keep your Continuous Cannabis Education Program up-to-date and ready for inspection.