Swetha Kaul, PhD

An Insider’s View: How Labs Conduct Cannabis Mold Testing

By Swetha Kaul, PhD
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Swetha Kaul, PhD

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.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus
Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces carcinogenic aflatoxins, which can contaminate certain foods and cause aspergillosis, an invasive fungal disease.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

dSPE cleanups

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener: Removal of Purple Pigmentation from Cannabis

By Danielle Mackowsky
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dSPE cleanups
strains
Cannabis strains used (clockwise from top left): Agent Orange, Tahoe OG, Blue Skunk, Grand Daddy and Grape Drink

Cannabis-testing laboratories have the challenge of removing a variety of unwanted matrix components from plant material prior to running extracts on their LC-MS/MS or GC-MS. The complexity of the cannabis plant presents additional analytical challenges that do not need to be accounted for in other agricultural products. Up to a third of the overall mass of cannabis seed, half of usable flower and nearly all extracts can be contributed to essential oils such as terpenes, flavonoids and actual cannabinoid content1. The biodiversity of this plant is exhibited in the over 2,000 unique strains that have been identified, each with their own pigmentation, cannabinoid profile and overall suggested medicinal use2. While novel methods have been developed for the removal of chlorophyll, few, if any, sample preparation methods have been devoted to removal of other colored pigments from cannabis.

QuEChERS
Cannabis samples following QuEChERS extraction

Sample Preparation

Cannabis samples from four strains of plant (Purple Drink, Tahoe OG, Grand Daddy and Agent Orange) were hydrated using deionized water. Following the addition of 10 mL acetonitrile, samples were homogenized using a SPEX Geno/Grinder and stainless steel grinding balls. QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) non-buffered extraction salts were then added and samples were shaken. Following centrifugation, an aliquot of the supernatant was transferred to various blends of dispersive SPE (dSPE) salts packed into centrifugation tubes. All dSPE tubes were vortexed prior to being centrifuged. Resulting supernatant was transferred to clear auto sampler vials for visual analysis. Recoveries of 48 pesticides and four mycotoxins were determined for the two dSPE blends that provided the most pigmentation removal.

Seven dSPE blends were evaluated for their ability to remove both chlorophyll and purple pigmentation from cannabis plant material:

  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18, 50 mg Chlorofiltr®
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg C18, 50 mg Chlorofiltr®
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 25 mg C18
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 25 mg PSA, 7.5 mg GCB
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18, 50 mg GCB

Based on the coloration of the resulting extracts, blends A, F and G were determined to be the most effective in removing both chlorophyll (all cannabis strains) and purple pigments (Purple Drink and Grand Daddy). Previous research regarding the ability of large quantities of GCB to retain planar pesticides allowed for the exclusion of blend G from further analyte quantitation3. The recoveries of the 48 selected pesticides and four mycotoxins for blends A and F were determined.

dSPE cleanups
Grand Daddy following various dSPE cleanups

Summary

A blend of MgSO4, C18, PSA and Chlorofiltr® allowed for the most sample clean up, without loss of pesticides and mycotoxins, for all cannabis samples tested. Average recovery of the 47 pesticides and five mycotoxins using the selected dSPE blend was 75.6% were as the average recovery when including GCB instead of Chlorofiltr® was 67.6%. Regardless of the sample’s original pigmentation, this blend successfully removed both chlorophyll and purple hues from all strains tested. The other six dSPE blends evaluated were unable to provide the sample clean up needed or had previously demonstrated to be detrimental to the recovery of pesticides routinely analyzed in cannabis.


References

(1)           Recommended methods for the identification and analysis of cannabis and cannabis products, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2009)

(2)            W. Ross, Newsweek, (2016)

(3)            Koesukwiwat, Urairat, et al. “High Throughput Analysis of 150 Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables Using QuEChERS and Low-Pressure Gas Chromatography Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry.” Journal of Chromatography A, vol. 1217, no. 43, 2010, pp. 6692–6703., doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2010.05.012.

HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the Cannabis Industry: Part 1

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Defined

Farm-to-fork is a concept to describe the control of food safety starting in the fields of a farm and ending with deliciousness in my mouth. The more that is optimized at every step, the more food safety and quality are realized. Farm-to-fork is not a concept reserved for foodies or “eat local” food campaigns and applies to all scales of food manufacture. HACCP is like putting the last piece of a huge puzzle in the middle and seeing the whole picture develop. HACCP is a program to control food safety at the step of food processing. In states where cannabis is legal, the state department of public health or state department of agriculture may require food manufacturers to have a HACCP plan. The HACCP plan is a written document identifying food safety hazards and how those hazards are controlled by the manufacturer. While there are many resources available for writing a HACCP plan, like solving that puzzle, it is a do-it-yourself project. You can’t use someone else’s “puzzle,” and you can’t put the box on a shelf and say you have a “puzzle.”

HACCP is pronounced “ha” as in “hat” plus “sip.”

(Say it aloud.)

3-2-1 We have liftoff.

The history of HACCP starts not with Adam eating in the garden of Eden but with the development of manned missions to the moon, the race to space in the 1950s. Sorry to be gross, but imagine an astronaut with vomiting and diarrhea as a result of foodborne illness. In the 1950s, the food industry relied on finished product testing to determine safety. Testing is destructive of product, and there is no amount of finished product testing that will determine food is safe enough for astronauts. Instead, the food industry built safety into the process. Temperature was monitored and recorded. Acidity measured by pH is an easy test. Rather than waiting to test the finished product in its sealed package, the food industry writes specifications for ingredients, ensures equipment is clean and sanitized, and monitors processing and packaging. HACCP was born first for astronauts and now for everyone.HACCP

HACCP is not the only food safety program.

If you are just learning about HACCP, it is a great place to start! There is a big world of food safety programs. HACCP is required by the United States Department of Agriculture for meat processors. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires HACCP for seafood processing and 100% juice manufacture. For all foods beyond meat, seafood and juice, FDA has the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to enforce food safety. FSMA was signed in 2011 and became enforceable for companies with more than 500 employees in September of 2016; all food companies are under enforcement in September 2018. FSMA requires all food companies with an annual revenue greater than $1 million to follow a written food safety plan. Both FDA inspectors and industry professionals are working to meet the requirements of FSMA. There are also national and international guidelines for food safety with elements of HACCP which do not carry the letter of law.

The first step in HACCP is a hazard analysis.

Traditionally HACCP has focused on processing and packaging. Your organization may call that manufacturing or operations. In a large facility there is metering of ingredients by weight or volume and mixing. A recipe or batch sheet is followed. Most, but not all, products have a kill step where high heat is applied through roasting, baking, frying or canning. The food is sealed in packaging, labeled, boxed and heads out for distribution. For your hazard analysis, you identify the potential hazards that could cause injury or illness, if not controlled during processing. Think about all the potential hazards:

  • Biological: What pathogens are you killing in the kill step? What pathogens could get in to the product before packaging is sealed?
  • Chemical: Pesticides, industrial chemicals, mycotoxins and allergens are concerns.
  • Physical: Evaluate the potential for choking hazards and glass, wood, hard plastic and metal.

The hazards analysis drives everything you do for food safety.

I cannot emphasize too much the importance of the hazard analysis. Every food safety decision is grounded in the hazard analysis. Procedures will be developed and capital will be purchased based on the hazard analysis and control of food safety in your product. There is no one form for the completion of a hazard analysis.

HACCP risk matrix
A risk severity matrix. Many HACCP training programs have these.

So where do you start? Create a flow diagram naming all the steps in processing and packaging. If your flow diagram starts with Receiving of ingredients, then the next step is Storage of ingredients; include packaging with Receiving and Storage. From Storage, ingredients and packaging are gathered for a batch. Draw out the processing steps in order and through to Packaging. After Packaging, there is finished product Storage and Distribution. Remember HACCP focuses on the processing and packaging steps. It is not necessary to detail each step on the flow diagram, just name the step, e.g. Mixing, Filling, Baking, etc. Other supporting documents have the details of each step.

For every step on the flow diagram, identify hazards.

Transfer the name of the step to the hazard analysis form of your choice. Focus on one step at a time. Identify biological, chemical and physical hazards, if any, at that step. The next part is tricky. For each hazard identified, determine the probability of the hazard occurring and severity of illness or injury. Some hazards are easy like allergens. If you have an ingredient that contains an allergen, the probability is high. Because people can die from ingestion of allergens when allergic, the severity is high. Allergens are a hazard you must control. What about pesticides? What is the probability and severity? I can hear you say that you are going to control pesticides through your purchasing agreements. Great! Pesticides are still a hazard to identify in your hazard analysis. What you do about the hazard is up to you.

Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services

Managing Cannabis Testing Lab Workflows using LIMS

By Dr. Susan Audino
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Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services

With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.

Cannabis Testing Workflows

To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:

  • Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
  • Screening for pesticide levels
  • Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
  • Moisture content measurements
  • Terpene profiling
  • Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
  • Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more

Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:

  1. Cannabis samples are received.
  2. The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
  3. A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
  4. The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
  5. The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
  6. The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
  7. The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
  8. The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.

In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.

Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory 

  • Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
  • Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.

    Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services
    CloudLIMS Cannabis Testing LIMS: Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services
  • Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
  • Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.

LIMS for Laboratory Automation

Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.

cloudlims screenshot
Real Time Test Status in CloudLIMS

A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.

How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs

LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:

Key Functionality Benefit
Barcode label designing and printing Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory

Follows GLP guidelines

Instant data capture by scanning barcodes Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Custodian management Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests

Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)

Test management Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments

Eliminates manual typographical errors

Report management Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients

Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use

21 CFR Part 11 compliant Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Workflow management Promotes better data management and resource allocation
High-configurability Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access

 

Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server

Global accessibility Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Real-time collaboration Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites

Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories

Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.

For more information on this, check out a webinar here: Webinar: How to Meet Cannabis Testing Standards and Regulatory Requirements with LIMS by Stephen Goldman, laboratory director at the State of Colorado certified Cannabis testing facility, PhytaTech.

Steven Burton

Top 4 Food Safety Hazards for the Cannabis Industry

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

As many US States and Canadian provinces approach legalization of cannabis, the question of regulatory oversight has become a pressing issue. While public awareness is mainly focused on issues like age restrictions and impaired driving, there is another practical question to consider: should cannabis be treated as a drug or a food product when it comes to safety? In the US, FDA governs both food and drugs, but in Canada, drugs are regulated by Health Canada while food products are regulated under the CFIA.There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled

Of course, there are common issues like dosage and potency that pharmaceutical companies typically worry about as the industry is moving to classifying its products in terms of percentage of chemical composition (THC, CBD, etc. in a strain), much as we categorize alcohol products by the percentage of alcohol. However, with the exception of topical creams and ointments, many cannabis products are actually food products. Even the herb itself can be brewed into teas, added to baked goods or made into cannabis-infused butters, oils, capsules and tinctures.

FDAlogoAs more people gain access to and ingest cannabis products, it’s only a matter of time before food safety becomes a primary concern for producers and regulators. So when it comes to food safety, what do growers, manufacturers and distributors need to consider? The fact is, it’s not that different from other food products. There are many food safety hazards associated with cannabis production and distribution that could put the public at risk, but are not yet adequately controlled. Continue reading below for the top four safety hazards for the cannabis industry and learn how to receive free HACCP plans to help control these hazards.

Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud

Just like any other agricultural product, improper growing conditions, handling and storage can result in mold growth, which produce aflatoxins that can cause liver cancer and other serious health problems. During storage, the danger is humidity; humidity must be monitored in storage rooms twice a day and the meter must be calibrated every month. During transportation, it is important to monitor and record temperatures in trucks. Trucks should also be cleaned weekly or as required. Products received at a cannabis facilities should be tested upon receiving and contaminated products must always be rejected, segregated and disposed of safely.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces carcinogenic aflatoxins, which can contaminate certain foods and cause aspergillosis, an invasive fungal disease.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants

Chemical residues can be introduced at several points during the production and storage process. During growing, every facility should follow instructions for applying fertilizers and pesticides to crops. This includes waiting for a sufficient amount of time before harvesting. When fertilizer is being applied, signs must be posted. After cannabis products have been harvested, chemical controls must be in place. All chemicals should be labelled and kept in contained chemical storage when not in use to prevent contamination. Only food-grade chemicals (e.g. cleaners, sanitizers) should be used during curing, drying, trimming and storage.

Without a comprehensive food safety program, problems will inevitably arise.There is also a risk of excessive concentration of chemicals in the washing tank. As such, chemical concentrations must be monitored for. In general, water (obviously essential for the growing process) also carries risks of pathogenic bacteria like staphylococcus aureus or salmonella. For this reason, city water (which is closely controlled in most municipalities) should be used with an annual report and review. Facilities that use well water must test frequently and water samples must be tested every three months regardless.

Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations

Insects, rodents and other pests spread disease. In order to prevent infestations, a pest control program must be implemented, with traps checked monthly by a qualified contractor and verified by a designated employee. It is also necessary to have a building procedure (particularly during drying), which includes a monthly inspection, with no holes or gaps allowed. No product should leave the facility uncovered to prevent fecal matter and other hazards from coming into contact with the product. Contamination can also occur during storage on pallets, so pallets must be inspected for punctures in packaging material.

Furthermore, even the best controlled facility can fall victim to the shortcomings of their suppliers. Procedures must be in place to ensure that suppliers are complying with pest and building control procedures, among others. Certifications should be acquired and tracked upon renewal.

Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling

Employee training is key for any food facility. When employees are handling products, the risk of cross-contamination is highest. Facilities must have GMP and personnel hygiene policies in place, with training conducted upon hiring and refreshed monthly. Employees must be encouraged to stay home when sick and instructed to wear proper attire (gloves, hair nets, etc.), while glass, jewelry and outside food must not be allowed inside the facility. Tools used during harvesting and other stages may also carry microorganisms if standard cleaning procedures are not in place and implemented correctly by employees.

As the cannabis industry grows, and regulatory bodies like the FDA and CFIA look to protect public safety, we expect that more attention will be paid to other food safety issues like packaging safety (of inks and labels), allergen control and others. In the production of extracts, for example, non-food safe solvents could be used or extracts can be mixed with ingredients that have expiration dates, like coconut oil. There is one area in which the cannabis industry may lead the way, however. More and more often, risks of food terrorism, fraud and intentional adulteration are gripping the food industry as the global food chain becomes increasingly complex. It’s safe to say that security at cannabis facilities is probably unparalleled.

All of this shows that cannabis products, especially edibles (and that includes capsules and tinctures), should be treated the same as other food products simply because they have the same kinds of hazards. Without a comprehensive food safety program (that includes a plan, procedures, training, monitoring and verification), problems will inevitably arise.

aurora logo

Aurora Leads Cannabis Import Race in Italy by Winning (Mostly) Exclusive Rights

By Marguerite Arnold
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aurora logo

Just as the dust had settled on the news that Canadian LP Aurora had signed agreements to finance a major growing facility in Denmark, the company also added another European feather to its cannabis cap.

On January 18, the company announced that it is the sole and exclusive winner of an EU-wide tender bid to begin to supply medical cannabis to the Italian government through the Ministry of Defense. Why is this federal agency in charge instead of the federal ministry of health? So far, the Italian cannabis program has been overseen exclusively by the Italian military.

pedanios cannabis
Pedanios cannabis, produced in Canada and imported through Germany

But the military just isn’t cut out to cultivate cannabis for the entire medical needs of a country, which should seem obvious. And that is where the Canadian LPs apparently are coming into play.

There were two stages to the bid, with Pedanios, Aurora’s German-based arm prequalifying in the first. In the final round, Pedianos won exclusive rights to begin supplying the government with medical cannabis.

What is interesting, however, is what this says not only about the potential growth of the cannabis market in Italy, but beyond that, Germany.

A German-Canadian Sourced Italian Product?

Pedanios, who won the bid, is the German-based arm of Aurora, one of Canada’s largest LPs. And Italian medical cannabis is now about to be routed by them from Canada, via Berlin, to market locally via pharmacies. It is certainly one of the stranger paths to market globally.

This announcement is even more interesting given that Aurora is widely suspected to be one of the top contenders in the still-pending German bid.aurora logo

Could this herald a German-sourced cannabis crop for an Italian neighbour?

And what does this say about the sheer amount of volume potentially needed for cultivation next door (or even in Italy) as Germany begins its own cultivation program, presumably this year, to source an already undersupplied domestic market where growing numbers of patients are getting their medical cannabis covered under public health insurance?

Will Germany further antagonize its neighbours over a cannabis trade imbalance? Or does this mean that a spurt of domestic Italian cannabis production is also about to start?

There are 80 million Germans and about 60 million Italians. Who will be the cannabis company to supply them?

Nuuvera Also Makes Italian Moves

Less widely reported, however, was the news that Aurora/Pedanios would not be the only private supplier to the Italian market. Nuuvera, which just announced that they had become finalists in the competitive Germany cultivation bid, also just acquired an import license to Italy for medical cannabis by buying Genoa based FL Group.Nuuvera logo

One thing is clear. The pattern of establishing presence here by the foreign (mostly Canadian) firms has been one of acquisition and financing partnerships for the past 2 years.

Import until you cultivate is also clearly the guiding policy of legalizing EU countries on the canna front.

The question really is at this point, how long can the import over cultivation preference continue? Especially given the expense of imported cannabis. Not to mention the cannabis farms now popping up all over the EU at a time when the Canadian market will have enough volume from recreational sales to keep all the large (and small) LPs at production capacity for years to come.

In the next year, in fact, look for this reality to start changing. No matter who has import licenses now with flower and oil crossing oceans at this point, within the next 18-24 months, look for this pattern to switch.

The distributors will be the same of course. But the brand (and source) of their product will be from European soil.

Foreign Invasions, Domestic Cultivation Rights & More

ICBC logoOne of the more interesting professional conferences this year globally will clearly be the ICBC in Berlin, where all of these swirling competitions and companies come together for what is shaping up to be the most influential cannabis business conference in Europe outside of Spannabis (and with a slightly different approach). Nowhere else in the world now are international companies (from bases in Canada, Australia and Israel primarily) competing in such close proximity for so many foreign cannabis markets and cultivation rights to go with them.

With the average cultivation facility in Europe going for about USD $30-40 million a pop in terms of sheer capital requirements plus the additional capital to finance the inevitable delays, such market presence does not come cheap.

It is increasingly clear that the only business here will also be of the highly regulated, controlled medical variety for some time to come.

That said, when the move towards recreational does come, and within the next four years or so, the global players who have opened these markets on the medical side, will be well positioned to provide product for a consumer base that is already being primed at the pump. Even if for now, the only access is via a doctor’s prescription.

Sunrise Genetics Partners With RPC, Begins Genetic Testing in Canada

By Aaron G. Biros
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Sunrise Genetics, Inc., the parent company of Marigene and Hempgene, announced their partnership with New Brunswick Research & Productivity Council (RPC) this week, according to a press release. The company has been working in the United States for a few years now doing genomic sequencing and genetic research with headquarters based in Fort Collins, CO. This new partnership, compliant with Health Canada sample submission requirements, allows Canadian growers to submit plants for DNA extraction and genomic sequencing.

Sunrise Genetics researches different cannabis cultivars in the areas of target improvement of desired traits, accelerated breeding and expanding the knowledge base of cannabis genetics. One area they have been working on is genetic plant identification, which uses the plant’s DNA and modern genomics to create authentic, reproducible, commercial-ready strains.

Matt Gibbs, president of Sunrise Genetics, says he is very excited to get working on cannabis DNA testing in Canada. “RPC has a long track record of leadership in analytical services, especially as it relates to DNA and forensic work, giving Canadian growers their first real option to submit their plant samples for DNA extraction through proper legal channels,” says Gibbs. “The option to pursue genomic research on cannabis is now at Canadian cultivator’s fingertips.”

Canada’s massive new cannabis industry, which now has legal recreational and medical use, sales and cultivation, previously has not had many options for genetic testing. Using their genetic testing capabilities, they hope this partnership will better help Canadian cultivators easily apply genomic testing for improved plant development. “I’m looking forward to working with more Canadian cultivators and breeders; the opportunity to apply genomics to plant improvement is a win-win for customers seeking transparency about their Cannabis product and producers seeking customer retention through ‘best-in-class’ cannabis and protectable plant varieties,” says Gibbs. The partnership also ensures samples will follow the required submission process for analytical testing, but adding the service option of genetic testing so growers can find out more about their plants beyond the regular gamut of tests.

RPC is a New Brunswick provincial research organization (PRO), a research and technology organization (RTO) that offers R&D testing and technical services. With 130 scientists, engineers and technologists, RPC offers a wide variety of testing services, including air quality, analytical chemistry of cannabis, material testing and a large variety of pilot facilities for manufacturing research and development.

They have over 100 accreditations and certifications including an ISO 17025 scope from the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and is ISO 9001:2008 certified. This genetic testing service for cannabis plants is the latest development in their repertoire of services. “This service builds on RPC’s established genetic strengths and complements the services we are currently offering the cannabis industry,” says Eric Cook, chief executive officer of RPC.

German Media Reports Dramatic Increase in Cannabis Patients Covered by Insurance

By Marguerite Arnold
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German media is now reporting that in the first 10 months of medical cannabis reform, over 13,000 applications for medical cannabis have been received by the largest three public health insurance companies. Most of the applications were received (and processed) by AOK who received 7,600 applications. Barmer received 3,200 applications. Krankenkassen Techniker (or TK as it is widely referred to here) received approximately 2,200 applications.

The reality is that most patients still rely on the black market.Between 62-64% of those who applied at the big three were also reimbursed. That means that there are already close to 10,000 patients, if not slightly more, covered under some kind of reimbursed cannabis scheme in Germany (where cannabis costs only $10 per month as a co-paid expense). When cannabis is not covered by health insurance, however, patients must pay out of pocket for the drug which can run as much as $3,000 for a single month’s supply.

This information is also being released, fascinatingly, not from the government, insurance companies or even advocacy groups. Instead it comes from a report produced by local media (the Rheinische Post in Dusseldorf). The media outlet surveyed the three top largest health insurance companies on the number of cannabis-as-medicine applications they have received since the cannabis law was reformed last year.

Home cultivation and recreational use, except in a few city trials now underway in places like Bremen, is still outlawed on a federal level. The new law also specifically prohibits patients from growing their own. And since the reform law passed last year, the prevailing story from patients is the difficulties they have had in not only finding a doctor willing to prescribe cannabis, but also getting their health insurers to reimburse them for huge out of pocket expenses that most of the chronically ill can never hope to afford.

The reality is that most patients still rely on the black market. It is still easier to get cannabis this way. And far cheaper – unless of course approved by health insurance.

What Does This Mean For The Bigger Picture?

Despite the fact that many in the mainstream German media are still highly sceptical of the medical efficacy of cannabis, the tide is turning here too, rather dramatically. According to recent polls, about 57% of the country is ready for recreational reform. That means in the last four to five years, the majority of public opinion has also shifted. It is also clear that medical cannabis cannot be as easily dismissed as it once was. Here or anywhere.

What makes this even more interesting is the impact this now moving situation will have on the debate, particularly domestically, but also internationally.

The first is that Germany clearly has a huge number of potential patients. Local advocates put the real number here north of 1 million for conditions the drug is commonly prescribed for in other places. At the present time, the only doctors who are allowed to prescribe the drug must also have a special license to dispense such restricted “narcotics” as cannabis is now classified auf Deutsch. And the only “on-label” condition for cannabis is still Multiple Sclerosis. That means that cancer, AIDS, chronic pain and movement disorder patients, along with those who manage to get approved for PTSD, ADD, depression and other “psychological” disorders only get the drug approved as a measure of “last resort.” In other words, after all other drugs fail. That is a high bar to pass.

The second, as a result, is that these numbers appear artificially low for another reason. The government claimed upon passage of the cannabis reform legislation last year that it expected only 10,000 new patients a year for the first few years (and before domestic cultivation began). As these results already prove, there are clearly far more patients who want the drug than those who can get it. There are also more patients whose doctors are willing to write prescriptions for the drug than are getting reimbursed by public health insurance.Bottom line? No matter how slow it is in getting started, the medical cannabis market has arrived in Germany. The numbers will only grow from here.

Third, this entire debate is now happening at a time when Germany is re-examining its own health insurance policies. While 90% of the country is on much cheaper public healthcare, 10% of the country, mostly the self-employed, foreigners and high earners, have private coverage. This is highly expensive, and ends up trapping even Germans in a system that is unaffordable as they age. In fact, the issue is a big one in Berlin right now as particularly the SPD is pushing Chancellor Merkel and the CDU to finally address a growing problem.

The law last year mandated that public health insurance must cover cannabis if prescribed under the right conditions. That means that private health insurers have to cover it too.

On the cannabis front specifically, what this may indicate, however, is that the public health insurers are being tasked to only approve a certain pre-identified number of patients nationally in the early part of the cannabis program. Especially as all of the medical cannabis in the country is still imported – and most of that is still coming from Canada.

What these numbers clearly show however, beyond all the caveats, is that demand is starting to pick up. Cannabis as medicine has not entirely caught on in the mainstream, although Germans are clearly interested in the idea. Especially given all the noise and news from abroad on this front.

It also means that no matter how “anaemic” these numbers may seem in early 2018, it is a respectable kick-off to what many in the industry view as one of the world’s most lucrative medical cannabis markets. Counting the approximately 1,000 patients who received medical cannabis before the law changed last year, it is safe to say that the market is now up and running.

Bottom line? No matter how slow it is in getting started, the medical cannabis market has arrived in Germany. The numbers will only grow from here.

How Does This Compare To Other Countries?

But how does the German patient ramp up compare to other countries after significant reform has been passed?

In Canada, the cannabis-as-medication discussion is clearly mainstream as the country prepares to launch its recreational program later this summer. The medical program began in 2014. The most recently released figures as of the beginning of January 2018, show that medical cannabis has clearly caught on. Health Canada’s most recent figures show that by September of last year, there were 235,621 registered cannabis patients in the country. Significantly, this is also up dramatically from 174,503 registered patients as of just April 2017. The previous year, the total number of cannabis patients literally tripled in 2016. To put this in “historical perspective,” as of Q1 2015, about a year into the new medical law in Canada, there were “only” 23,930 patients (or about twice the number in Germany as of now). This growth is all the more impressive when one considers that there is no mandate for insurance coverage of the drug in Canada. That said, cannabis is far cheaper in Canada. It is of course covered domestically. Plus the licensed producers can mail order it directly to patients.

Israel’s path to medical cannabis access has been slower off the ground in terms of overall numbers, but it is has still dramatically expanded over the past decade too. In 2012, there were about 10,000 cannabis patients in Israel. That number more than doubled by 2016 to over 23,000 patients. This will continue to increase too. Israel’s medical cannabis is covered under national health insurance and patients must pay about $100 a month for their meds.

What Is The Official German Government Response To This News?

Marlene Mortler, German drug commissioner for the federal government and affiliated with the CSU, has issued comments that seem to be supportive of the continued program in Germany. “The growing number of permits shows how important it was to launch this law last year,” she said, while warning that medical cannabis is not a panacea.

Microbiology 101 Part Two

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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Microbiology 101 Part One introduced the reader to the science of microbiology and sources of microbes. In Part Two, we discuss the control of microorganisms in your products.

Part 2

The cannabis industry is probably more informed about patients and consumers of their products than the general food industry. In addition to routine illness and stress in the population, cannabis consumers are fighting cancer, HIV/AIDS and other immune disorders. Consumers who are already ill are immunocompromised. Transplant recipients purposely have their immune system suppressed in the process of a successful transplant. These consumers have pre-existing conditions where the immune system is weakened. If the immunocompromised consumer is exposed to viral or bacterial pathogens through cannabis products, the consumer is more likely to suffer from a viral infection or foodborne illness as a secondary illness to the primary illness. In the case of consumers with weakened immune systems, it could literally kill them.Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments.

The cannabis industry shoulders great responsibility in both the medical and adult use markets. In addition to avoiding chemical hazards and determining the potency of the product, the cannabis industry must manufacture products safe for consumption. There are three ways to control pathogens and ensure a safe product: prevent them from entering, kill them and control their growth.

Prevent microorganisms from getting in

Think about everything that is outdoors that will physically come in a door to your facility. Control the quality of ingredients, packaging, equipment lubricants, cleaning agents and sanitizers. Monitor employee hygiene. Next, you control everything within your walls: employees, materials, supplies, equipment and the environment. You control receiving, employee entrance, storage, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. At every step in the process, your job is to prevent the transfer of pathogens into the product from these sources.

Kill microorganisms

Colorized low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria.
Image courtesy of USDA ARS & Eric Erbe

The combination of raw materials to manufacture your product is likely to include naturally occurring pathogens. Traditional heat methods like roasting and baking will kill most pathogens. Remember, sterility is not the goal. The concern is that a manufacturer uses heat to achieve organoleptic qualities like color and texture, but the combination of time and temperature may not achieve safety. It is only with a validated process that safety is confirmed. If we model safety after what is required of food manufacturers by the Food and Drug Administration, validation of processes that control pathogens is required. In addition to traditional heat methods, non-thermal methods for control of pathogens includes irradiation and high pressure processing and are appropriate for highly priced goods, e.g. juice. Killing is achieved in the manufacturing environment and on processing equipment surfaces after cleaning and by sanitizing.

If you have done everything reasonable to stop microorganisms from getting in the product and you have a validated step to kill pathogens, you may still have spoilage microorganisms in the product. It is important that all pathogens have been eliminated. Examples of pathogens include Salmonella, pathogenic Escherichia coli, also called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria monocytogenes. These three common pathogens are easily destroyed by proper heat methods. Despite steps taken to kill pathogens, it is theoretically possible a pathogen is reintroduced after the kill step and before packaging is sealed at very low numbers in the product. Doctors do not know how many cells are required for a consumer to get ill, and the immunocompromised consumer is more susceptible to illness. Lab methods for the three pathogens mentioned are designed to detect very low cell numbers. Packaging and control of growth factors will stop pathogens from growing in the product, if present.

Control the growth of microorganisms

These growth factors will control the growth of pathogens, and you can use the factors to control spoilage microbes as well. To grow, microbes need the same things we do: a comfortable temperature, water, nutrients (food), oxygen, and a comfortable level of acid. In the lab, we want to find the pathogen, so we optimize these factors for growth. When you control growth in your product, one hurdle may be enough to stop growth; sometimes multiple hurdles are needed in combination. Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments. They are at the bottom of the ocean under pressure. They are in hot springs at the temperature of boiling water. The diversity is immense. Luckily, we can focus on the growth factors for human pathogens, like Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.

The petri dishes show sterilization effects of negative air ionization on a chamber aerosolized with Salmonella enteritidis. The left sample is untreated; the right, treated. Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Ken Hammond

Temperature. Human pathogens prefer to grow at the temperature of the human body. In manufacture, keep the time a product is in the range of 40oF to 140oF as short as possible. You control pathogens when your product is at very hot or very cold temperatures. Once the product cools after a kill step in manufacturing, it is critical to not reintroduce a pathogen from the environment or personnel. Clean equipment and packaging play key roles in preventing re-contamination of the product.

Water. At high temperatures as in baking or roasting, there is killing, but there is also the removal of water. In the drying process that is not at high temperature, water is removed to stop the growth of mold. This one hurdle is all that is needed. Even before mold is controlled, bacterial and yeast growth will stop. Many cannabis candies are safe, because water is not available for pathogen growth. Packaging is key to keep moisture out of the product.

Nutrients. In general, nutrients are going to be available for pathogen growth and cannot be controlled. In most products nutrients cannot be removed, however, recipes can be adjusted. Recipes for processed food add preservatives to control growth. In cannabis as in many plants, there may be natural compounds which act as preservatives.

Oxygen. With the great diversity of bacteria, there are bacteria that require the same oxygen we breathe, and mold only grows in oxygen. There are bacteria that only grow in the absence of oxygen, e.g. the bacteria responsible for botulism. And then there are the bacteria and yeast in between, growing with or without oxygen. Unfortunately, most human pathogens will grow with or without oxygen, but slowly without oxygen. The latter describes the growth of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. While a package seals out air, the growth is very slow. Once a package is opened and the product is exposed to air, growth accelerates.

Acid. Fermented or acidified products have a higher level of acid than non-acid products; the acid acts as a natural preservative. The more acid, the more growth is inhibited. Generally, acid is a hurdle to growth, however and because of diversity, some bacteria prefer acid, like probiotics which are non-pathogenic. Some pathogens, like E. coli, have been found to grow in low acid foods, e.g. juice, even though the preference is for non-acidic environments.

Each facility is unique to its materials, people, equipment and product. A safe product is made by following Good Agricultural Practices for the cannabis, by following Good Manufacturing Practices and by suppressing pathogens by preventing them coming in, killing them and controlling their growth factors. Future articles will cover Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and food safety in more detail.

Microbiology 101 Part One

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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I have been studying microorganisms for over 35 years, and the elusive critters still fascinate me! Here in Microbiology 101, I write about the foundation of knowledge on which all microbiologists build. You may have a general interest in microbiology or have concerns in your operation. By understanding microbiology, you understand the diversity of microorganisms, their source, control of microorganisms and their importance.

Part 1

The term microbiology covers every living being we cannot see with the naked eye. The smallest microbe is a virus. Next in size are the bacteria, then yeast and mold cells, and the largest microbes are the protozoans. The tiny structure of a virus may be important in the plant pathology of cannabis, but will not grow in concentrates or infused products. A virus is not living, until it storms the gate of a living cell and overtakes the functions within the cell. Viruses are the number one cause of foodborne illness, with the number one virus called Norovirus. Think stomach flu. Think illness on cruise ships. Viruses are a food service problem and can be prevented by requiring employees to report sickness, have good personal hygiene including good hand washing, and, as appropriate, wear gloves. Following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) is critical in preventing the transfer of viruses to a product where the consumer can be infected.

The petri dishes show sterilization effects of negative air ionization on a chamber aerosolized with Salmonella enteritidis. The left sample is untreated; the right, treated. Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Ken Hammond

The largest microbial cell is the protozoan. They are of concern in natural water sources, but like viruses, will not grow in cannabis products. Control water quality through GMPs, and you control protozoans. Viruses and protozoans will not be further discussed here. Bacteria, yeast and mold are the focus of further discussion. As a food microbiologist, my typical application of this information is in the manufacturing of food. Because Microbiology 101 is a general article on microbiology, you can apply the information to growing, harvesting, drying, manufacture of infused products and dispensing.

It is not possible to have sterile products. Even the canning process of high temperature for an extended time allows the survival of resistant bacterial spores. Astronauts take dehydrated food into space, and soldiers receive MREs; both still contain microbes. Sterility is never the goal. So, what is normal? Even with the highest standards, it is normal to have microbes in your products. Your goal is to eliminate illness-causing microorganisms, i.e. pathogens. Along the way, you will decrease spoilage microbes too, making a product with higher quality.

Petri dish containing the fungus Aspergillus flavus. It produces carcinogenic aflatoxins, which can contaminate foods and cause an invasive fungal disease.
Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Peggy Greb.

Yeast and mold were discussed on CIJ in a previous article, Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know. Fuzzy mold seen on the top of food left in the refrigerator too long is a quality issue, not a safety issue. Mold growth is a problem on damaged cannabis plants or cuttings and may produce mycotoxin, a toxic chemical hazard. Following Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) will control mold growth. Once the plant is properly dried, mold will not grow and produce toxin. Proper growing, handling and drying prevents mycotoxins. Like mold, growth of yeast is a quality issue, not a safety issue. As yeast grow, they produce acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. While these fermentation products are unwanted, they are not injurious. I am aware that some states require cannabis-infused products to be alcohol-free, but that is not a safety issue discussed here.

What are the sources of microorganisms?

People. Employees who harvest cannabis may transfer microorganisms to the plant. Later, employees may be the source of microbes at the steps of trimming, drying, transfer or portioning, extract processing, infused product manufacture and packaging.

Ingredients, Supplies and Materials. Anything you purchase may be a source of microorganisms. Procure quality merchandise. Remember the saying, “you get what you pay for.”

Environment. Starting with the outdoors, microbes come from wind, soil, pests, bird droppings and water. When plants are harvested outdoors or indoors, microbes come from the tools and bins. Maintain clean growing and harvesting tools in good working condition to minimize contamination with microbes. For any processing, microbes come from air currents, use of water, and all surfaces in the processing environment from dripping overhead pipes to floor drains and everything in between.

In Part 2 I will continue to discuss the diversity of microorganisms, and future articles will cover Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and food safety in more detail. What concerns do you have at each step of operations? Are you confident in your employees and their handling of the product? As each state works to ensure public health, cannabis-infused products will receive the same, if not more, scrutiny as non-cannabis food and beverages. With an understanding and control of pathogens, you can focus on providing your customers with your highest quality product.