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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.

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.

Ask The Expert: Exploring Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation Part 3

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry.

In the third part of this series, we sit down with Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., to talk method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited. In the final part of this series, we are going to sit down with Susan Audino, an instructor at A2LA to learn more about the requirements where she’ll offer some advice for labs seeking accreditation.

Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc.

Michael DeGregorio is a doctor of pharmacy with an extensive career in medicine and scientific research. He’s worked in cancer research and medicine, teaching at the University of California, San Francisco, Yale University School of Medicine, University of Texas, Health Science Center at San Antonio and University of California, Davis. Before becoming the CEO of Konocti Analytics, a laboratory based in California, DeGregorio was also a published author in a large number of peer-reviewed medical journals.

In this piece, we sit down with DeGregorio to find out what challenges labs face when getting accredited, why they sought accreditation and their experience with getting off the ground. Stay tuned for the final part of this series!

CannabisIndustryJournal: How does a laboratory go about choosing an appropriate method in an industry where, generally, there are no validated methods available?

Michael DeGregorio: Our approach to developing analytical methods for testing cannabis began with a review of the existing laboratories and their methods, where we found no standardization and inconsistent results. Since cannabis is being used by the public and as a medicine, our goal is to help make it as contaminant-free as possible for the well-being of the consumer, and this begins by developing a state-of-the-art analytical facility.

When developing new methods, we review the published literature to see what has already been done and try to arrive at a scientifically sound consensus. We then perform experiments to determine which set of conditions works best for us. Once we have developed an appropriate method, we validate it pursuant to ISO/IEC 17025 requirements.

CIJ: How do you go about choosing what type of equipment to use for testing (e.g. by limit of detection, acceptable method use of equipment for other industries, etc.)?

Michael: After reviewing the operations of other testing laboratories, we concluded that, in general, they were not taking advantage of the most advanced technologies and had limited personnel qualified to operate it. Because public safety is our main concern, we chose state-of-the-art equipment, including GC/LC-MS with Orbitrap and ICP-MS, for testing medicinal cannabis. In addition to identifying unknown pesticides, we needed the capability of performing full chemical screening of all samples for potentially harmful compounds, e.g. steroids, present in cannabis, as well as the ability to detect trace levels of metals.

Our greatest concern is the fact that pesticides in cannabis have not been adequately studied. Current pesticide regulations suggest that government authorities believe that there are a finite number of pesticides available. Smart farmers could easily avoid the pesticides on current lists. Because of this, we chose to validate our pesticide methods with a focus on chemical classes, as opposed to specific pesticides, to give us the broadest possible coverage of potential compounds. The Orbitrap mass spectrometers also allow us to detect and identify unknown pesticides. This is something not currently being done by other laboratories. The latest microbiology methods for cannabis testing include DNA analysis, and for this we use qRT-PCR technology. Finally, the high sensitivity of ICP-MS allows for the detection of metals concentrations that may be harmful, yet undetectable by other means.

CIJ: What do you feel are the benefits of being accredited?

Michael: Being accredited shows the public that we have made a commitment to quality analytics. We feel this gives our clients peace of mind when marketing their products, knowing that they have been tested by a laboratory meeting the highest international standards of operation available using the latest technology. Furthermore, being accredited requires participation in ongoing proficiency testing programs, which helps maintain analytical competency. It should be pointed out that any prospective client of an analytical facility should take into account the laboratory’s full accredited scope of testing to ensure its competency.

CIJ: What challenges did you face during the process of getting your laboratory started and/or during the accreditation process?

Michael: Developing the quality management system and getting our equipment and processes to a state where they met accreditation requirements took several months of hard work, and turned out to be a bit more daunting than we anticipated. Our pre-accreditation assessment revealed that much work remained to be done, and it gave us a real appreciation for the level of detail and documentation required. We remained determined and eventually achieved our accreditation.

CIJ: What are the benefits to the grower and dispensaries to choosing an accredited laboratory for the testing of their product?

Michael: By choosing an accredited laboratory with a full scope of testing (potency, pesticides, mycotoxins, metals, microbiology, residual solvents and terpenes), growers and dispensaries can rest assured that their products have been tested using validated methods with appropriate quality control by trained, competent personnel. For growers, this makes their products more attractive to potential buyers. For dispensaries, this means they can confidently market their products with the knowledge that the information shown on the label is accurate, which in turn gives their customers peace of mind that the product they are consuming does not contain unacceptable levels of contaminants. 

CIJ: Why did you choose A2LA?

Michael: Once we decided to pursue accreditation, we researched the various accrediting bodies available as well as their reputations. We discovered that while all accrediting bodies are themselves accredited to the same standard, accreditation by the various bodies was not considered equal in practice. In our opinion, A2LA was considered the most prestigious, highly regarded accrediting body. Furthermore, some of the most prestigious laboratories in the country are accredited by A2LA, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Centers for Disease Control, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Agriculture. Many of our preferred sources of scientific supplies and services are accredited by A2LA as well. As our goal was to be accredited by the best available accrediting body, we chose A2LA.

Are You Ready For an Inspection?

By Maureen McNamara, Lezli Engelking
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Would you be proud to have your customers and patients tour your production facility? When health inspectors or enforcement personnel arrive at your location is there sense of panic or pride?

When you have detailed systems in place, inspections should be informative, not stressful. Keep in mind that in the cannabis industry, products are often created for patients. Patients may have a compromised immune system and thus are more susceptible to food borne illnesses, pesticides and other contaminants.

Are you and your team doing everything you can to produce a wholesome and safe product?

According to the World Health Organization, Good Manufacturing Process (GMP) “is a system for ensuring that products are consistently produced according to quality standards.”

GMP is the proactive part of quality assurance. It is designed to minimize the risks involved in all steps of the manufacturing process. A basic tenant of GMP is that quality cannot be tested into a product. It must be built into each batch of product during all stages of the manufacturing process.

GMPs involve much more than most people think. A common misconception is that GMP only covers the process of manufacturing itself. GMPs actually cover all aspects of the production process:

  • Materials
  • Premises
  • Equipment
  • Storage
  • Record Keeping
  • Staff Training to Hygiene
  • How Complaints Are Handled

GMP & The Cannabis Industry

In most industries, agencies that control licensing for the manufacture and sale of a product recommend GMPs, or guidelines to business owners. These guidelines provide minimum requirements that a manufacturer must meet to assure that products are of high quality and do not pose any risk to the consumer or public. The guidelines generally become the basis of regulation for that industry.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends guidelines for anything food, drug or pharmaceutical related.

Because cannabis still remains illegal at the federal level, none of the federal agencies that would normally develop good manufacturing guidelines have done so. This has left state lawmakers and business owners on their own to navigate this new and rapidly developing industry.

The Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) has developed standards with a mission to protect public health, consumer safety and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry.

The comprehensive implementation of cannabis specific good manufacturing practices, like the FOCUS standards, across all aspects of the industry will assist business owners and regulators alike, addressing quality proactively at every step in the process, which is critical to protecting consumer safety and public health – and the overall success of a nascent and divisive industry like cannabis.

The FOCUS standards are completing the final phase of development, a thirty-day public review and comment period before being released for use in the marketplace in June. These voluntary consensus-based standards are built on GMPs drawn from agriculture, food production, chemical management, OTCs, pharmaceuticals, and other relevant industries. In addition, the standards draw best practices from the cannabis industry, as well as those published in OSHA, FDA, FTC, CDC, ISO, code of federal regulations and various state-level cannabis regulations.

There are many aspects of creating and implementing GMPs. Here are three to be aware of:

  1. Get the facility design right from the start: It’s much easier to be GMP compliant if the design and construction of the facilities and equipment are right from the start. It is important to embody GMP principles and use GMPs to drive every decision. 
  1. Document what you do and do what you document: Having good procedures in place to ensure a controlled and consistent performance is an essential part of GMP. Procedures should be clear, concise, logical, and available to everyone.
  1. Keep good records: Keeping accurate records is an essential part of GMP. It helps convey that you are following procedures and demonstrates that processes are known and under control. If it’s not written down, it did not happen.

Standards and quality programs in any industry are dynamic by nature. Nothing is static. Standards must constantly be updated to reflect ever-changing market conditions. This is why it is so crucial that regulations are based on them.

To be a standard, there are certain core principals that must be present. However, the goal of a standard is to guide an industry without impeding or controlling it. This is why there is so much inherent value in implementing standards. They bring enough structure to help reduce costs and increase efficiency, but not so much control that individual nuances or creativity is affected.

It is much less expensive to be proactive. Recovering from a recall or contaminated product can not only be costly, it is a massive hit to the company’s reputation. It may take years for sales to recover, and for consumers to trust the product again. Where could you and your team enhance your standards and processes?