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extractiongraphic

The Four Pillars of Cannabis Processing

By Christian Sweeney
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extractiongraphic

Cannabis extraction has been used as a broad term for what can best be described as cannabis processing. A well-thought-out cannabis process goes far beyond just extraction, largely overlapping with cultivation on the front-end and product development on the back-end1. With this in mind, four pillars emerge as crucial capabilities for developing a cannabis process: Cultivation, Extraction, Analytics and Biochemistry.

The purpose and value of each pillar on their own is clear, but it is only when combined that each pillar can be optimized to provide their full capacities in a well-designed process. As such, it is best to define the goals of each pillar alone, and then explain how they synergize with each other.

At the intersection of each pillar, specific technology platforms exist that can effectively drive an innovation and discovery cycle towards the development of ideal products.Cultivation is the foundation of any horticultural process, including cannabis production. Whether the goal be to convert pigments, flavors or bioactive compounds into a usable form, a natural process should only utilize what is provided by the raw material, in this case cannabis flower. That means cultivation offers a molecular feedstock for our process, and depending on our end goals there are many requirements we may consider. These requirements start as simply as mass yield. Various metrics that can be used here include mass yield per square foot or per light. Taken further, this yield may be expressed based not only on mass, but the cannabinoid content of the plants grown. This could give rise to a metric like CBD or THC yield per square foot and may be more representative of a successful grow. Furthermore, as scientists work to learn more about how individual cannabinoids and their combinations interact with the human body, cultivators will prioritize identifying cultivars that provide unique ratios of cannabinoids and other bioactive compounds consistently. Research into the synergistic effect of terpenes with cannabinoids suggests that terpene content should be another goal of cultivation2. Finally, and most importantly, it is crucial that cultivation provide clean and safe materials downstream. This means cannabis flower free of pesticides, microbial growth, heavy metals and other contaminants.

Extraction is best described as the conversion of target molecules in cannabis raw material to a usable form. Which molecules those are depends on the goals of your product. This ranges from an extract containing only a pure, isolated cannabinoid like CBD, to an extract containing more than 100 cannabinoids and terpenes in a predictable ratio. There are countless approaches to take in terms of equipment and process optimization in this space so it is paramount to identify which is the best fit for the end-product1. While each extraction process has unique pros and cons, the tunability of supercritical carbon dioxide provides a flexibility in extraction capabilities unlike any other method. This allows the operator to use a single extractor to create extracts that meet the needs of various product applications.

Analytics provide a feedback loop at every stage of cannabis production. Analytics may include gas chromatography methods for terpene content3 or liquid chromatography methods for cannabinoids 3, 4, 5. Analytical methods should be specific, precise and accurate. In an ideal world, they can identify the compounds and their concentrations in a cannabis product. Analytics are a pillar of their own due simply to the efforts required to ensure the quality and reliability of results provided as well as ongoing optimization of methods to provide more sensitive and useful results. That said, analytics are only truly harnessed when paired with the other three pillars.

extractiongraphic
Figure 1: When harnessed together the pillars of cannabis processing provide platforms of research and investigation that drive the development of world class products.

Biochemistry can be split into two primary focuses. Plant biochemistry focuses back towards cultivation and enables a cannabis scientist to understand the complicated pathways that give rise to unique ratios of bioactive molecules in the plant. Human biochemistry centers on how those bioactive molecules interact with the human endocannabinoid system, as well as how different routes of administration may affect the pharmacokinetic delivery of those active molecules.

Each of the pillars require technical expertise and resources to build, but once established they can be a source of constant innovation. Fig. 1 above shows how each of these pillars are connected. At the intersection of each pillar, specific technology platforms exist that can effectively drive an innovation and discovery cycle towards the development of ideal products.

For example, at the intersection of analytics and cultivation I can develop raw material specifications. This sorely needed quality measure could ensure consistencies in things like cannabinoid content and terpene profiles, more critically they can ensure that the raw material to be processed is free of contamination. Additionally, analytics can provide feedback as I adjust variables in my extraction process resulting in optimized methods. Without analytics I am forced to use very rudimentary methods, such as mass yield, to monitor my process. Mass alone tells me how much crude oil is extracted, but says nothing about the purity or efficiency of my extraction process. By applying plant biochemistry to my cultivation through the use of analytics I could start hunting for specific phenotypes within cultivars that provide elevated levels of specific cannabinoids like CBC or THCV. Taken further, technologies like tissue culturing could rapidly iterate this hunting process6. Certainly, one of the most compelling aspects of cannabinoid therapeutics is the ability to harness the unique polypharmacology of various cannabis cultivars where multiple bioactive compounds are acting on multiple targets7. To eschew the more traditional “silver bullet” pharmaceutical approach a firm understanding of both human and plant biochemistry tied directly to well characterized and consistently processed extracts is required. When all of these pillars are joined effectively we can fully characterize our unique cannabis raw material with targeted cannabinoid and terpene ratios, optimize an extraction process to ensure no loss of desirable bioactive compounds, compare our extracted product back to its source and ensure we are delivering a safe, consistent, “nature identical” extract to use in products with predictable efficacies.

Using these tools, we can confidently set about the task of processing safe, reliable and well characterized cannabis extracts for the development of world class products.


[1] Sweeney, C. “Goal-Oriented Extraction Processes.” Cannabis Science and Technology, vol 1, 2018, pp 54-57.

[2] Russo, E. B. “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.” British Journal of Pharmacology, vol. 163, no. 7, 2011, pp. 1344–1364.

[3] Giese, Matthew W., et al. “Method for the Analysis of Cannabinoids and Terpenes in Cannabis.” Journal of AOAC International, vol. 98, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1503–1522.

[4] Gul W., et al. “Determination of 11 Cannabinoids in Biomass and Extracts of Different Varieties of Cannabis Using high-Performance Liquid Chromatography.” Journal of AOAC International, vol. 98, 2015, pp. 1523-1528.

[5] Mudge, E. M., et al. “Leaner and Greener Analysis of Cannabinoids.” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, vol. 409, 2017, pp. 3153-3163.

[6] Biros, A. G., Jones, H. “Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 1.” Cannabis Industry Journal, 13 Apr. 2017, www.cannabisindustryjournal.com/feature_article/applications-for-tissue-culture-in-cannabis-growing-part-1/.

[7] Brodie, James S., et al. “Polypharmacology Shakes Hands with Complex Aetiopathology.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, vol. 36, no. 12, 2015, pp. 802–821.

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EVIO Labs Expands Ahead of California Testing Deadline

By Aaron G. Biros
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EVIO Labs photo

In a few short weeks, the regulations in California’s cannabis market will expand to include more laboratory testing. The previous exemption for selling untested product will be eliminated come July 1st, meaning that every product on dispensary shelves will have to be tested for a number of contaminants.

EVIO labs photo
Pesticide testing, expanded residual solvent testing and foreign materials testing will be added come July 1st.

According to William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs, the state is currently finalizing a revision to the existing emergency rules, which is designed to target the potential supply bottleneck situation. “To help alleviate the bottleneck, the state is eliminating the field duplicate test on every batch of cannabis or cannabis products,” says Waldrop. “This will give the labs additional bandwidth to process more batches for testing.” So one test per batch is the rule now and batch sizes will remain the same. This, of course, is contingent on the state finalizing that revision to the emergency regulations.

William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs
William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs

In addition to that change, the state will expand the types of testing requirements come July 1st.  New mandatory pesticide testing, expanded residual solvent testing and foreign materials testing are added in addition to the other tests already required.

With July 1st quickly approaching, many in California fear the rules could lead to a major market disruption, such as the previously mentioned bottleneck. Waldrop sees the elimination of duplicate testing as a preventative measure by the state. “It is a good move for the industry because it allows labs to test more batches, hopefully reducing the bottleneck come July,” says Waldrop. Still though, with only 26 licensed laboratories in the state as of March, testing facilities will have to meet higher demand, performing more tests and working with more clients.

EVIO Labs is preparing for this in a number of ways. They already have a lab in Berkeley and are working to expand their capacity for more analyses. In addition to their lab in Berkeley, the company is working to get three more locations operational as quickly as possible. “Right now, EVIO Labs is expanding through the identification of new market locations,” says Waldrop. “We have announced the acquisition of a facility in Humboldt and we are outfitting it for state-mandated testing. We have secured a location in LA, and licensing for LA just began as of June 1stso we are going through the local licensing process at this time. We are still moving through the licensing process for our facility in Costa Mesa as well.”

EVIO Labs photo
Labs will soon have to deal with higher demand, meaning more samples and more clients

“In the meantime, we have expanded capacity of personnel in our Berkeley facility to support our client base until these other locations come online,” says Waldrop. “We are refining our business, bringing on additional equipment and more resources.” While the rules haven’t been implemented yet, Waldrop says he’s seen an uptick in business with licensed operators requesting more testing for the new July 1st standards.

While some might feel a bit panicky about how the new standards could disrupt the market, Waldrop says his clients are looking forward to it. “Our clients are very happy with the proposed new rules, because it reduces the cost of testing per batch, which will inherently reduce wholesale costs, making cannabis more affordable for patients and recreational users.”

Washington Lab Conducts Transparency Study

By Aaron G. Biros
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Earlier this week Capitol Analysis Group, a cannabis-testing laboratory based in Lacey, Washington, announced they are conducting a “data-driven Lab Transparency Project, an effort to improve accuracy of cannabis testing results in the state through transparency and a new third-party auditing process,” according to a press release. They plan to look through the state’s traceability data to find patterns of deviations and possible foul play.

The project launch comes after Straightline Analytics, a Washington cannabis industry data company, released a report indicating they found rampant laboratory shopping to be present in the state. Lab shopping is a less-than-ethical business practice where cannabis producers look for the lab that will give them the most favorable results, particularly with respect to higher potency figures and lower contamination fail rates.“Lab shopping shouldn’t exist, because it is a symptom of lab variability,”

According to the press release, their report “shows that businesses that pay for the highest number of lab tests achieve, on average, reported potency levels 2.71% higher than do those that pay for the lowest number of lab tests.” They also found labs that provide higher potency figures tend to have the largest market share.

The Lab Transparency Project logo
The Lab Transparency Project logo

The goal of The Lab Transparency Project is to provide summaries of lab data across the state, shining a light in particular on which labs provide the highest potency results. “Lab shopping shouldn’t exist, because it is a symptom of lab variability,” says Jeff Doughty, president of Capitol Analysis. “We already have standards that should prevent variations in lab results and proficiency testing that shows that the labs are capable of doing the testing.” The other piece to this project is independent third party auditing, where they hope other labs will collaborate in the name of transparency and honesty. “Problems arise when the auditors aren’t looking,” says Doughty. “Therefore, we’re creating the Lab Transparency Project to contribute to honesty and transparency in the testing industry.”

Dr. Jim McRae, founder of Straightline Analytics, and the author of that inflammatory report, has been a vocal critic of the Washington cannabis testing industry for years now. “I applaud Capitol Analysis for committing to this effort,” says McRae. “With the state’s new traceability system up and running following a 4-month breakdown, the time for openness and transparency is now.” Dr. McRae will be contributing to the summaries of lab data as part of the project.

According to Doughty, the project is designed to be a largely collaborative effort with other labs, dedicated to improving lab standards and transparency in the industry.

control the room environment

Environmental Controls: The Basics

By Vince Sebald
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control the room environment

The outside environment can vary widely depending on where your facility is located. However, the internal environment around any activity can have an effect on that activity and any personnel performing the activity, whether that’s storage, manufacturing, testing, office work, etc. These effects can, in turn, affect the product of such activities. Environmental control strategies aim to ensure that the environment supports efforts to keep product quality high in a manner that is economical and sensible, regardless of the outside weather conditions.

For this article, let us define the “environment” as characteristics related to the room air in which an activity is performed, setting aside construction and procedural conditions that may also affect the activity. Also, let us leave the issue of managing toxins or potent compounds for another time (as well as lighting, noise, vibration, air flow, differential pressures, etc). The intent here is to focus on the basics: temperature, humidity and a little bit on particulate counts.

Temperature and humidity are key because a non-suitable environment can result in the following problems:

  • Operator discomfort
  • Increased operator error
  • Difficulty in managing products (e.g. powders, capsules, etc)
  • Particulate generation
  • Degradation of raw materials
  • Product contamination
  • Product degradation
  • Microbial and mold growth
  • Excessive static

USP <659> “Packaging and Storage Requirements” identifies room temperature as 20-25°C (68-77 °F) and is often used as a guideline for operations. If gowning is required, the temperature may be reduced to improve operator comfort. This is a good guide for human working areas. For areas that require other specific temperatures (e.g. refrigerated storage for raw materials), the temperature of the area should be set to those requirements.

Humidity can affect activities at the high end by allowing mold growth and at the low end by increasing static. Some products (or packaging materials) are hydroscopic, and will take on water from a humid environment. Working with particular products (e.g. powders) can also drive the requirement for better humidity control, since some powders become difficult to manage in either high or low humidity environments. For human operations without other constraints, a typical range for desirable humidity is in the range of 20 to 70% RH in manufacturing areas, allowing for occasional excursions above. As in the case of temperature, other requirements may dictate a different range.

control the room environment
In some cases, a locally controlled environment is a good option to reduce the need to control the room environment as tightly or to protect the operator.

In a typical work environment, it is often sufficient to control the temperature, while allowing the relative humidity to vary. If the humidity does not exceed the limits for the activity, then this approach is preferred, because controlling humidity adds a level of complexity (and cost) to the air handling. If humidity control is required, it can be managed by adding moisture via various humidification systems, or cooling/reheating air to remove moisture. When very low humidity is required, special equipment such as a desiccant system may be required. It should be noted that although you can save money by not implementing humidity control at the beginning, retrofitting your system for humidity control at a later time can be expensive and require a shutdown of the facility.

Good engineering practice can help prevent issues that may be caused by activities performed in inappropriately controlled environments. The following steps can help manage the process:

  • Plan your operations throughout your facility, taking into account the requirements for the temperature and humidity in each area and know what activities are most sensitive to the environment. Plans can change, so plan for contingencies whenever possible.
  • Write down your requirements in a User Requirement Specification (URS) to a level of detail that is sufficient for you to test against once the system is built. This should include specific temperature and RH ranges. You may have additional requirements. Don’t forget to include requirements for instrumentation that will allow you to monitor the temperature and RH of critical areas. This instrumentation should be calibrated.
  • Solicit and select proposals for work based on the URS that you have generated. The contractor will understand the weather in the area and can ensure that the system can meet your requirements. A good contractor can also further assist with other topics that are not within the scope of this article (particulates, differential pressures, managing heating or humidity generating equipment effects, etc).
  • Once work is completed, verify correct operation using the calibrated instrumentation provided, and make sure you add periodic calibration of critical equipment, as well as maintenance of your mechanical system(s), to your calibration and maintenance schedules, to keep everything running smoothly.

The main point is if you plan your facility and know your requirements, then you can avoid significant problems down the road as your company grows and activity in various areas increases. Chances are that a typical facility may not meet your particular requirements, and finding that out after you are operational can take away from your vacation time and peace of mind. Consider the environment, its good business!

The Necessity of Food Safety Programs in Cannabis Food Processing

By Gabe Miller
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When processing cannabis, in any form, it is critical to remember that it is a product intended for human consumption. As such, strict attention must also be paid to food safety as well. With more and more states legalizing either medical or recreational cannabis, the potential for improper processing of the cannabis triggering an illness or death to the consumer is increasing.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the new food safety law that has resulted in seven new regulations, many which directly or indirectly impact the production and processing of cannabis. Under FSMA regulations, food processors must identify either known or reasonably foreseeable biological, chemical or physical hazards, assess the risks of each hazard, and implement controls to minimize or prevent them. The FSMA Preventive Controls for Human Foods (PCHF) regulation contains updated food “Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) that are in many cases made a requirement in a state’s medical or recreational cannabis laws. These cGMPs can be found in 21 CFR 117 Subpart B.

It is imperative that cannabis manufacturers have a number of controls in place including management of suppliers providing the raw material.Food safety risks in cannabis processing could originate from bacteria, cleaning or agricultural chemicals, food allergens or small pieces of wood, glass or metal. The hazards that must be addressed could be natural, unintentionally introduced, or even intentionally introduced for economic benefit, and all must be controlled.

It is unlikely that high heat, used in other food products to remove bad bacteria would be used in the processing of cannabis as many of its desirable compounds are volatile and would dissipate under heating conditions. Therefore, any heat treatment needs to be carefully evaluated for effectiveness in killing bacterial pathogens while not damaging the valuable constituents of cannabis. Even when products are heated above temperatures that eliminate pathogens, if the raw materials are stored in a manner that permits mold growth, mycotoxins produced by molds that have been linked to cancer could be present, even after cooking the product. Storage of raw materials might require humidity controls to minimize the risk of mold. Also, pesticides and herbicides applied during the growth and harvesting of cannabis would be very difficult to remove during processing.

It is imperative that cannabis manufacturers have a number of controls in place including management of suppliers providing the raw material. Other controls that must be implemented include proper cannabis storage, handling and processing as well as food allergen control, and equipment/facility cleaning and sanitation practices. Processing facilities must adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP’s) for food processing, including controls such as employee hand washing and clothing (captive wear, hair nets, beard nets, removal of jewelry, and foot wear) that might contribute to contamination. A Pest Control plan must be implemented to prevent fecal and pathogen contamination from vermin such as rodents, insects, or birds.

Processing facilities must be designed for proper floor drainage to prevent standing water. Processing air should be properly filtered with airflow into the cannabis processing facility resulting in a slightly higher pressure than the surrounding air pressure, from the clean process area outwards. Toilet facilities with hand washing are essential, physically separated from the process areas. Food consumption areas must also be physically separate from processing and bathroom areas and have an available, dedicated hand sink nearby. Employee training and company procedures must be effective in keeping food out of the processing area. Labels and packaging must be stored in an orderly manner and controlled to prevent possible mix-up.Cleaning of the processing equipment is critical to minimize the risk of cross contamination and microbial growth.

Written food safety operational procedures including prerequisite programs, standard operating procedures (SOP’s), etc. must be implemented and monitored to ensure that the preventive controls are performed consistently. This could be manual written logs, electronic computerized data capture, etc., to ensure processes meet or exceed FSMA requirements.

A written corrective action program must be in place to ensure timely response to food safety problems related to cannabis processing problems when they occur and must include a preventive plan to reduce the chance of recurrence. The corrective actions must be documented by written records.

Supply chain controls must be in place. In addition, a full product recall plan is required, in the event that a hazard is identified in the marketplace to provide for timely recall of the contaminated product.

Cleaning of the processing equipment is critical to minimize the risk of cross contamination and microbial growth. The processing equipment must be designed for ease of cleaning with the minimum of disassembly and should conform to food industry standards, such as the 3-A Sanitary Standards, American Meat Institute’s Equipment Standards, the USDA Equipment Requirements, or the Baking Industry Sanitation Standards Committee (BISSC) Sanitation Standards ANSI/ASB/Z50.2-2008.

Serious food borne contaminations have occurred in the food industry, and cannabis processing is just as susceptible to foodborne contamination. These contaminations are not only a risk to consumer health, but they also burden the food processors with significant costs and potential financial liability.

Anyone processing cannabis in any form must be aware of the state regulatory requirements associated with their products and implement food safety programs to ensure a safe, desirable product for their customers.

EVIO Logo

EVIO Labs: The First Accredited Cannabis Lab in Florida

By Lauren Masko
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EVIO Logo

EVIO Labs recently became the first cannabis laboratory in Florida to obtain ISO 17025 accreditation. Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), an organization that provides third-party assessments to ISO/IEC 17025, accredited EVIO Labs. The assessment process that lead to ISO 17025 accreditation for EVIO Labs included a thorough review of their quality management system, their capability to perform potency and contaminant testing for cannabis products.

Tracy Szerszen, president and operations manager at PJLA, encourages this international standard for laboratories to provide confidence to end-users that the test results they receive are reliable. She says laboratories that achieve this accreditation are showing they have the proper tools, equipment and staff to provide accurate testing. “It is a very critical component of the industry, and becoming accredited provides the assurance that laboratories are performing to the highest standard,” says Szerszen. “EVIO Labs has taken the right step in their commitment towards meeting this standard and providing clean and safe cannabis for the patients of Florida.”

PJLAEVIO Labs provides cannabis testing for cannabinoid and terpene profiles, microbiological and pesticides contamination, residual solvent, heavy metals, mycotoxins, water activity and moisture content. Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Labs Florida explains that the Florida Department of Health mandates that an independent third-party laboratory tests medical cannabis to ensure that these products are safe for human consumption. Martinez says their first priority is the safety of their patients, and ensuring that EVIO Labs provides clean and safe cannabis for Florida.

Chris Martinez
Chris Martinez, co-founder and president of EVIO Labs Florida

Martinez launched their laboratory with some help from Shimadzu last year. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez. According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.

Every certificate of analysis is reviewed by a lab director with over 20 years of experience operating in FDA regulated labs. Martinez says that EVIO has some of the most advanced technology in the industry, which provides them the opportunity to quickly provide results, frequently as fast as a 24-hour period. Martinez and his team are currently building a 3,300 square-foot laboratory in Gainesville, which is expected to be running by March of this year.

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.

autoclave

10 Treatment Methods to Reduce Mold in Cannabis

By Ketch DeGabrielle
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autoclave

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.

Fun Fact: one square centimeter of mold can produce over 2,065,000,000 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.

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

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.

autoclave
An autoclave
Image: Tom Beatty, Flickr

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 equipment
Extraction can be an effective form of remediating contaminated cannabis

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.

photo of outdoor grow operation

How to Reduce Mold & Contaminants in Indoor, Greenhouse and Outdoor Grows

By Ketch DeGabrielle
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photo of outdoor grow operation

Controlling your grow environment doesn’t start when you germinate your first seeds, it starts before you build your grow. There are steps you can take that will have a significant impact on mold growth and contamination, and these will vary based on the grow environment you choose.

Below is a roadmap to where each grow environment stands in terms of mold and contamination risk, and simple steps you can take to mitigate these factors.

Outdoor

The benefits of an outdoor grow are significant – using natural sunlight to grow plants is both inexpensive and environmentally sound. However, it allows the least amount of control and makes plants susceptible to weather conditions and outdoor contaminants including dust, wind, rain and insects. Depending on humidity and precipitation levels, mold can be a big issue as well.

Outdoor growing has obvious benefits, such as natural sunlight, but may also require extra steps to prevent contamination

When selecting an outdoor area for a cannabis farm, there are two important factors to consider: location and neighboring farmland. Geographical environments and sub-climates vary and once you have purchased land, you are committed, so be sure to consider these factors prior to purchase.

While arid desert climates have abundant sunlight and long growing seasons, flat, dry lands are subject to dust-storms, flash floods and exceedingly high winds that can damage crops. Conversely, more protected areas often have high humidity and rainfall late in the season, which can create huge issues with bud rot and mold. Neighboring farms also have an impact on your grow, so be sure to find out what they cultivate, what they spray, their harvest schedule and how they run their operation. Large farming equipment kicks up a lot of contaminant-laden dust and can damage crops by displacing insects to your farm if they harvest before you. Pesticide drift is also a major issue as even tiny amounts from a neighbor’s farm can cause your crops to fail testing, depending on what state you are in.

With outdoor grow environments always at the mercy of Mother Nature, any cultivator is wise to control contamination potential on the ground. Cover soil and protect your crop by planting cover crops and laying plastic mulch on as much ground as reasonable. In many cases it makes sense to irrigate uncultivated parts of your farm just to keep dust down.

Greenhouse

Greenhouses are the future of cannabis cultivation. They allow growers to capture the full spectrum and power of the sun while lessening environmental impact and operating expenses, while still being able to precisely control the environment to grow great cannabis. With recent advancements in greenhouse technology such as automated control systems, positive pressure, geothermal heating or cooling and LED supplemental lighting, greenhouses are the future. However, older or economy greenhouses that take in unfiltered air from outside still have a medium amount of mold and contamination risk.

A greenhouse grow facility

Before building your greenhouse, study the area while taking into account climate, weather conditions and sun exposure. Excessively windy areas can blow in contaminants, and extremely hot climates make cooling the greenhouse interior a challenging and costly endeavor.

There are several simple operational tactics to reduce contaminants in a greenhouse. Add a thrip screen to keep insects out, thoroughly clean pad walls with an oxidizing agent after each cycle, and keep plants at least 10 feet from pad walls. Plan to flip the entire greenhouse at once so that you can clean the greenhouse top to bottom before your next crop. A continuous harvest in your greenhouse allows contaminants to jump from one plant to the next and reduces the ability to control your environment and eliminate problems at the end of a cycle. Lastly, open shade curtains slowly in the morning. This prevents temperature inversion and condensation, which can cause water drops to fall from the ceiling and transfer contaminants onto plants below.

Indoor

An indoor environment offers ultimate control to any grow operation. Cultivators can grow high-quality cannabis with the smallest potential for yeast and mold growth. Unfortunately, indoor environments are extremely expensive, inefficient and environmentally costly.

Talltrees
An indoor cannabis operation set up (Image: Tall Trees LED Company)

With indoor grow environments, keeping mold and contaminants at bay comes down to following a regimented plan that keeps all grow aspects clean and in order. To keep your grow environment clean, change HVAC filters multiple times a month. It’s also important to install HEPA filters and UV lights in HVAC systems to further reduce contamination threats. Clearly mark air returns if they are near the ground and keep those areas free of clutter. They are the lungs of your grow. Also, stop using brooms in the grow space. They stir up a lot of contaminants that have settled to the floor. Instead, use HEPA filter backpack vacuums or install a central vacuum system. Set up a “dirty room” for anything messy on a separate HVAC system, and be sure to thoroughly clean pots after every harvest cycle.

Learn more about reducing mold and contaminants in an indoor or greenhouse grow in another article from our series: 10 Ways to Reduce Mold in Your Grow.

10 Ways to Reduce Mold in Your Grow

By Ketch DeGabrielle
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Regardless of whether your grow is indoor or in a greenhouse, mold is a factor that all cultivators must consider.

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

After weeks of careful tending, pruning and watering to encourage a strong harvest, all cultivators are looking to sell their crop for the highest market value. A high mold presence, measured through a total yeast and mold count (TYMC), can cause a change of plans by decreasing crop value. But it doesn’t have to.

There are simple steps that any cultivator can take that will greatly eliminate the risk of mold in a grow. Below are some basic best practices to incorporate into your operation to reduce contaminants and mold growth:

  1. Isolate dirty tasks. If you are cleaning pots, filling pots or scrubbing trimming scissors, keep these and other dirty tasks away from grow and process areas. Dirty tasks can contaminate the grow area and encourage mold growth. Set up a “dirty room” that does not share heating, ventilation and air conditioning with clean areas.
  2. Compartmentalize the grow space. Mold can launch spores at speeds up to 55 miles per hour up to eight feet away without any air current. For this reason, if mold growth begins, it can become a huge problem very quickly. Isolate or remove a problem as soon as it is discovered- better to toss a plant than to risk your crop.
  3. No drinks or food allowed. Any drinks or food, with the exception of water, are completely off limits in a grow space. If one of your employees drops a soda on the ground, the sugars in the soda provide food for mold and yeast to grow. You’d be surprised how much damage a capful of soda or the crust of a sandwich can do.
  4. Empty all trash daily. Limiting contaminants in turn limits the potential for issues. This is an easy way to keep your grow clean and sterile.
  5. Axe the brooms. While a broom may seem like the perfect way to clean the floor, it is one of the fastest ways to stir up dirt, dust, spores and contaminants, and spread them everywhere. Replace your brooms with hepa filter backpack vacuums, but be sure that they are always emptied outside at the end of the work day.
  6. No standing water or high humidity. Mold needs water to grow, therefore standing water or high humidity levels gives mold the sustenance to sporulate. Pests also proliferate with water. Remove standing water and keep the humidity level as low as possible without detriment to your plants.
  7. Require coveralls for all employees. Your employee may love his favorite jean jacket, but the odds are that it hasn’t been cleaned in months and is covered with mold spores. Clean clothing for your staff is a must. Provide coveralls that are washed at least once a week if not daily.
  8. Keep things clean. A clean and organized grow area will have a huge impact on mold growth. Clean pots with oxidate, mop floors with oxidate every week, keep the areas in front of air returns clean and clutter-free, and clean floor drains regularly. The entire grow and everything in it should be scrubbed top to bottom after each harvest.
  9. Keep it cool. Keep curing areas cool and storage areas cold where possible. The ideal temperature for a curing area is roughly 60 degrees and under 32 degrees for a storage area. Just like food, the lower the temperature, the better it keeps. High temperature increases all molecular and biological activity, which causes things to deteriorate faster than at cooler temperatures. However, curing temperature is a function of water activity more than anything.
  10. Be Careful With Beneficials. Beneficial insects certainly have their place in the grow environment. However, if you have a problem with mold on only a small percentage of plants, any insect can act as a carrier for spores and exacerbate the problem. By the same token, pests spread mold more effectively than beneficials because they produce rapidly, where beneficials die if there aren’t pests for them to eat. It is best to use beneficials early in the cycle and only when necessary.