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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.

California Releases Proposed Emergency Regulations

By Aaron G. Biros
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Last week, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control released their proposed emergency regulations for the industry. The Bureau, the government agency tasked with regulating California’s cannabis industry, announced the proposed emergency regulations ahead of the highly anticipated January 2018 start date.

The Bureau also published helpful fact sheets and overview documents, providing a good snapshot of the major requirements for different types of licenses. Here are some of the key takeaways:

Temporary licenses will allow businesses to operate for 120 days while their annual license application is being processed. Not surprisingly, local jurisdictions have considerable autonomy. Getting a license seems to be contingent on first getting local approval to operate. According to Josh Drayton, communications and outreach director at the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), working with local governments will be crucial to making progress. “Now that the Brown Administration has created the framework for medical and adult use cannabis, the main challenge we face as an industry is getting local municipalities to move forward with regulations,” says Drayton. “California has a dual licensing process which means that cannabis operators must receive a local permit/license/authorization before being able to apply for a state license. A majority of California cities and counties have yet to finalize their regulations which will delay state licensing.”

The initial reactions to these proposed regulations seem positive, given that this is a culmination of efforts over several years. “The California Cannabis Industry Association welcomes the release of the emergency regulations,” says Drayton. “These regulations represent years of hard work and collaboration between the administration, the regulating departments, and the cannabis industry.”

License Distinctions

A-type licenses are for businesses in the adult-use market, while M-type licenses are for the medical market. Laboratory licenses don’t have this distinction, as they can test both medical and adult-use products.

The record keeping and security requirements seem relatively straightforward, requiring normal surveillance measures like 24-hour video, commercial-grade locks and alarm systems. The rules also lay out guidelines for disposing of waste, including securing it on the premises and not selling it.

Distributors

Distributor licenses appear to have a number of compliance documentation requirements, such as arranging for all product testing, quality assurance and packaging and label accuracy. “Cannabis and cannabis products must pass through a distributor prior to being sold to customers at a retail establishment,” reads the overview the Bureau published. There is also a transport-only distributor license option. Those regulations appear to be more comprehensive than others, with a number of regulations pertaining to appropriate transportation and security measures.

Everything has to be packaged before it gets to retail; Retailers are not allowed to package or label cannabis products on premises. Microbusiness licenses will be available, which should be an exciting new development to follow as the market matures.

Labs

The state will require ISO 17025 accreditation for testing labs. A provisional license is required for a lab to operate in the short term, expiring after 12 months. Laboratory personnel are required to go in the field and do the sampling. Documentation requirements, sample sizes, sampling procedures and storage and transportation rules are also laid out.

Testing labs are required to test for cannabinoids, foreign material, heavy metals, microbial impurities, mycotoxins, moisture content and water activity, residual pesticides, residual solvents and processing chemicals and terpenoids (terpenes). Infused and edible products are required to be tested for homogeneity in THC and CBD concentrations as well. Drayton and the CCIA welcome these new testing regulations, hoping it might improve overall public safety. “We believe that these regulations will address public health issues by mandating the testing of all cannabis products,” says Drayton. “The evolution of the cannabis industry will continue, and we will continue to advocate for good policy that creates solutions for the problems that arise. I believe that we will be visiting and revisiting cannabis regulations for many years to come.”

Certificates of analysis (COA) will be required, showing whether a batch passes or fails testing requirements. Harvest batches that fail testing can be processed for remediation. “Testing laboratories are required to develop and implement a quality assurance program that is sufficient to ensure the reliability and validity of the analytical data produced by the laboratory,” reads the statement on QA and QC.

The Bureau, at the end of their regulatory overview document, lays out some possible enforcement actions, disciplinary actions and citations that could come from noncompliance. “These emergency regulations create a framework for both medical and adult use consumers,” says Drayton.  “January 1, 2018 will be the first date that adults 21 years and older will be able to purchase cannabis without a medical card.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll be breaking down and analyzing the other proposed emergency regulations that the state released. Stay tuned for a breakdown of the California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) regulations on cannabis cultivation, as well as The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) cannabis manufacturing regulations.

Colorado To Begin Requiring Potency Testing For Medical Infused Products

By Aaron G. Biros
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After a delay due to their proficiency testing program roll out, the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) will now require all medical infused products and concentrates be tested for potency and homogeneity, starting November 1st, 2017.

After November 1st, all production batches of concentrates from medical product manufacturers will need to have a potency test before being sold, transferred or processed. The same goes for medical infused products, such as edibles and topicals. The homogeneity test refers to making sure THC or other active ingredients are distributed evenly throughout the product.

According to Alex Valvassori, author of a regulatory compliance-focused blog post on Complia’s website, these new testing requirements could lead to a surge in pricing, passed on to patients. He also recommends dispensaries take a close look at labels coming in from suppliers. They need to make sure potency data is listed clearly on the label to stay compliant.

Production batches created before November 1st are not required to meet the new testing regulations, but any and all batches after that date will be required to perform those tests.