Tag Archives: food

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.


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

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Defined

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

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

(Say it aloud.)

3-2-1 We have liftoff.

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

HACCP is not the only food safety program.

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

The first step in HACCP is a hazard analysis.

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

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

The hazards analysis drives everything you do for food safety.

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

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

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

For every step on the flow diagram, identify hazards.

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

Steven Burton

Top 4 Food Safety Hazards for the Cannabis Industry

By Steven Burton
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.

Microbiology 101 Part One

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

Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the sources of microorganisms?

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

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

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

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

California Manufacturing Regulations: What You Need To Know

By Aaron G. Biros
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In late November, California released their proposed emergency regulations for the cannabis industry, ahead of the full 2018 medical and adult use legalization for the state. We highlighted some of the key takeaways from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s regulations for the entire industry earlier. Now, we are going to take a look at the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) cannabis manufacturing regulations.

According to the summary published by the CDPH, business can have an A-type license (for products sold on the adult use market) and an M-type license (products sold on the medical market). The four license types in extraction are as follows:

  • Type 7: Extraction using volatile solvents (butane, hexane, pentane)
  • Type 6: Extraction using a non-volatile solvent or mechanical method
    (food-grade butter, oil, water, ethanol, or carbon dioxide)
  • Type N: Infusions (using pre-extracted oils to create edibles, beverages,
  • capsules, vape cartridges, tinctures or topicals)
  • Type P: Packaging and labeling only

As we discussed in out initial breakdown of the overall rules, California’s dual licensing system means applicants must get local approval before getting a state license to operate.

The rules dictate a close-loop system certified by a California-licensed engineer when using carbon dioxide or a volatile solvent in extraction. They require 99% purity for hydrocarbon solvents. Local fire code officials must certify all extraction facilities.

In the realm of edibles, much like the rule that Colorado recently implemented, infused products cannot be shaped like a human, animal, insect, or fruit. No more than 10mg of THC per serving and 100mg of THC per package is allowed in infused products, with the exception of tinctures, capsules or topicals that are limited to 1,000 mg of THC for the adult use market and 2,000 mg in the medical market. This is a rule very similar to what we have seen Washington, Oregon and Colorado implement.

On a somewhat interesting note, no cannabis infused products can contain nicotine, caffeine or alcohol. California already has brewers and winemakers using cannabis in beer and wine, so it will be interesting to see how this rule might change, if at all.

CA Universal Symbol (JPG)

The rules for packaging and labeling are indicative of a major push for product safety, disclosure and differentiating cannabis products from other foods. Packaging must be opaque, cannot resemble other foods packaged, not attractive to children, tamper-evident, re-sealable if it has multiple servings and child-resistant. The label has to include nutrition facts, a full ingredient list and the universal symbol, demonstrating that it contains cannabis in it. “Statute requires that labels not be attractive to individuals under age 21 and include mandated warning statements and the amount of THC content,” reads the summary. Also, manufacturers cannot call their product a candy.

Foods that require refrigeration and any potentially hazardous food, like meat and seafood, cannot be used in cannabis product manufacturing. They do allow juice and dried meat and perishable ingredients like milk and eggs as long as the final product is up to standards. This will seemingly allow for baked goods to be sold, as long as they are packaged prior to distribution.

Perhaps the most interesting of the proposed rules are requiring written standard operating procedures (SOPs) and following good manufacturing practices (GMPs). Per the new rules, the state will require manufacturers to have written SOPs for waste disposal, inventory and quality control, transportation and security.

Donavan Bennett, co-founder and CEO of the Cannabis Quality Group

According to Donavan Bennett, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Cannabis Quality Group, California is taking a page from the manufacturing and life science industry by requiring SOPs. “The purpose of an SOP is straightforward: to ensure that essential job tasks are performed correctly, consistently, and in conformance with internally approved procedures,” says Bennett. “Without having robust SOPs, how can department managers ensure their employees are trained effectively? Or, how will these department managers know their harvest is consistently being grown? No matter the employee or location.” California requiring written SOPs can potentially help a large number of cannabis businesses improve their operations. “SOPs set the tempo and standard for your organization,” says Bennett. “Without effective training and continuous improvement of SOPs, operators are losing efficiency and their likelihood of having a recall is greater.”

Bennett also says GMPs, now required by the state, can help companies keep track of their sanitation and cleanliness overall. “GMPs address a wide range of production activities, including raw material, sanitation and cleanliness of the premises, and facility design,” says Bennett. “Auditing internal and supplier GMPs should be conducted to ensure any deficiencies are identified and addressed. The company is responsible for the whole process and products, even for the used and unused products which are produced by others.” Bennett recommends auditing your suppliers at least twice annually, checking their GMPs and quality of raw materials, such as cannabis flower or trim prior to extraction.

“These regulations are only the beginning,” says Bennett. “As the consumer becomes more educated on quality cannabis and as more states come online who derives a significant amount of their revenue from the manufacturing and/or life science industries (e.g. New Jersey), regulations like these will become the norm.” Bennett’s Cannabis Quality Group is a provider of cloud quality management software for the cannabis industry.

“Think about it this way: Anything you eat today or any medicine you should take today, is following set and stringent SOPs and GMPs to ensure you are safe and consuming the highest quality product. Why should the cannabis industry be any different?”

Cannabis, Soil Science and Sustainability Part II: The ‘Roots’ of Sustainable Cultivation

By Drew Plebani
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The modern chemical agricultural approach is based on the assumption that chemical science has discovered all facets of plant nutritional requirements. It is clear that the traditional NPK approach to plant/soil systems has its limitations, both from an ecological perspective and in terms of its ability to create nutrient-dense food.

Soil and plant systems have existed together for millions of years and have evolved the capacity to coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial. Plants have been fed and evolved with these biological and environmental stimuli over millennia.

Looking to the geologic record for evidence, we can see that it shows that invertebrates, fungi and early vascular plants appeared on land roughly 400 million years ago, the first seed bearing plants about 360 million years ago and the first flowering plants 130 million years ago. What does this mean? The soil food web has been in existence for millions of years and significant evidence exists that plants and soil biology have co-evolved together for millennia.

The Geologic Time Scale

Between mineral rich soils and the soil food web, this natural system has been able to create and provide significant plant available nutrients, certainly enough to facilitate the successful life cycle of many species. Clearly from an evolutionary context this system has been able to facilitate maximum genetic expression and the ongoing evolution of biologic species.

In the not-too-distant past, agricultural fertilization practices were based on the existence of a diversity of plant and animal byproducts, animal manures, green manures, etc. These were reintroduced to the system and combined with the appropriate biologic populations, resulting in the decomposition of these organic material inputs and their conversion into plant-available nutrients.

An overview of traditional farming practices provides substantial evidence that farming has been occurring for at least 10,000 years. Why, with such a long history of symbiotic interactions between biologic species, are we now witnessing the mass deterioration of arable land, and agricultural commodities containing lower nutritional value?

Mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus bacteria colony, seen breaking through rock.
Together, indigenous mycelium and plant roots seen turning rock into soil

An interesting common question among the conventional farming community, when the topic of organics or sustainability comes up, is “how are you going to feed the world?” Well that goal certainly will not be well served by the development of shelf stable, but low nutrient-dense foods. A greater volume of low nutrient-value foods certainly does not seem like a winning approach. Supporting agricultural systems that encourage the development of sustainable systems via locally produced, nutrient-dense food is a good start.

And the same holds true for cannabis. In fact, the parallels between the production of high quality nutrient dense foods and high quality cannabis products are quite significant.

Nutrient density in crops results from balanced, mineral rich soils, and a diversity of organic materials and biologic life, these elements provide the framework to facilitate the creation of a highly functional, biologic nutrient cycling system. A highly functional soil system results in more nutrient-dense crops, which contain measurably larger quantities of different phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and terpenes as compared to a system operating at a lower level of biologic efficiency.

Nutrient-dense cannabis flowers

Benefits that have been observed from nutrient-dense crops are: more pest and disease resistance in the vegetative and fruiting stages, greater yield, more complex and intense flavors and a longer shelf life.

Ultimately advancement in any cultivation system means finding and defining limiting factors in the given system. The objective should be ensuring the maximum biologic vitality of the components of said system and its outputs. Practically speaking, in order to enable the full genetic potential of biologic species, this means identifying and working toward the removal of limiting factors. Minimizing or entirely alleviating the factors that limit maximum plant growth will undoubtedly net positive gains and must be an integral component to any sustainable cultivation strategy.

Cannabis growing in a polyculture

The Earth has provided us with a highly successful, multi-million-year-old biologic system, capable of providing abundant plant available nutrients on demand, a dynamic which must be integral to appropriate and intelligent systems design.

In the pursuit of sustainability, perhaps it is time to return to our roots and begin to pursue dynamics that are mutually beneficial to all forms of biologic life.

In the next article, we will take a step back from viewing sustainability through the lens of soil and plant specific cultivation methodologies, and focus on the broader context of sustainability in cultivation systems. We will look at sustainability from the context of operational efficiency, and provide a case study from a 400-light commercial indoor cannabis operation. The case study will provide evidence that, in order to achieve higher levels of sustainability, both cultivation strategies and operational efficiency must be factored into the equation. As we will see, true sustainability is created through the efficient design, incorporation, use and management of system elements, all of which can, when appropriately designed, work together to create improved efficiency for the system.


Cannabis, Soil Science and Sustainability

By Drew Plebani

The average commercial cannabis cultivator seems to be following the modern agricultural paradigm. That model is based on questionable and, one might say, ineffective soil systems management.

In the high-yield cannabis world, amidst decades of prohibition, following the lead of the modern agricultural model has resulted in the adoption of cultural practices that go something like this: Use and destroy the soil, then dispose of it once it is rendered lifeless and useless due to repeated heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other poisons.

(Left) unimproved site soil next to (right) improved site soil. Notice the root mass developing on the right

Certainly conventional agricultural food production and the soil management systems underpinning them are faltering, evidenced by soil systems deteriorating many times faster than they are being improved. This qualifies as a failure in my book.

What will be the fate of profit margins, sustainability and medicine in the cannabis industry if we continue to follow blindly in the footsteps of chemical agriculture? Perhaps it is time to turn over a new leaf.

A little context for the discussion: scientists say the Earth has lost a third of arable land in the past 40 years, and some say soil erosion is the number one challenge facing the world today. Why? How?

Well…world agricultural production accounts for about three-quarters of the soil erosion worldwide. This steep decline in arable soil is occurring during a time when the world’s demand for food is rapidly increasing. It is estimated that the world will need to grow 50% more food by 2050, and it is important to note that, the total volume of food necessary, remains relative to the nutrient density of the food.

Time for a radical solution, and cannabis can lead the way.

Currently, cannabis is the most profitable crop per land area and very likely the most resource-consumptive crop grown (due to the current legal and regulatory climate and thus limited supply vs. demand).

As the cannabis industry continues to grow, now more than ever we have the opportunity, and I believe the responsibility, to cultivate in ecologically mindful ways, improve the end product and it’s positive impacts, increase both short-term and long-term profits, decrease or eliminate waste and lower the carbon footprint of cannabis cultivation operations.

A cover crop under trellis’ with cannabis plants

Most importantly, we have the opportunity to fund, implement and lead the way in research and development of sustainable, medical, phytonutrient-dense crop production methodologies.

Only by implementing more rigorous scientific methods to cannabis cultivation can we hope to provide truly meaningful improvements in and contributions to the fields of agriculture, science, medicine and human health.

While dumpsters of potting soil continue to roll off to the landfill, complex health and human science and the cultivators truly engaged in science will continue to provide meaningful data regarding plant compounds and what factors influence the best outcome for the desired end product.

The same crop pictured above, now two weeks into flowering, using cover crops

I am willing to bet that what is best will not be coming from the business models employing antiquated, wasteful and destructive cultivation strategies, and that in due time these models will fade into distant memories.

This is the first in a series of articles, in which we will explore topics related to the pursuit of high yield, phytonutrient-dense “high brix” cannabis production.

The next article will provide a historical and geologic context to the cannabis plant, as viewed from the scope of soil biology and the progression of ecosystems and soil types, and how maximized genetic expression, through maximized soil and plant health influence the production of high quality cannabis.

DEA To Consider Rescheduling Cannabis, Could Mean Policy Shift

By Aaron G. Biros
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In a letter sent to lawmakers last week, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced plans to make a decision on rescheduling cannabis by mid-2016. The announcement could represent the culmination of a shift in the federal government’s attitude toward cannabis legalization.Dea_color_logo

Currently, cannabis is a Schedule I narcotic, meaning the government views it as lacking medical benefits and have a high potential for abuse. The rescheduling of cannabis has the potential to open the floodgates for research, including much needed clinical trials.

Derek Peterson, chief executive officer at Terra Tech, a cannabis-focused agriculture company, believes this bodes well for the growth potential of the cannabis industry. “From the perspective of quality and safety standards, I find it unlikely that rescheduling it would negatively impact the degree to which cannabis is examined,” says Peterson. “It’s unnecessarily high position on the DEA drug schedule does nothing but limit the industry’s potential for growth, stall any meaningful pharmaceutical testing and increase law enforcement’s ability to prosecute non-violent drug offenders,” adds Peterson.

The rescheduling could also potentially allow for the prescribing of cannabis for patients. Stephen Goldner, founder of Pinnacle Labs and president of Regulatory Affairs Associates, is hopeful this will lead to a greater shift in public attitude towards cannabis. “The DEA’s announcement is a clear message to all States and possibly even to United Nations policy makers: even the DEA is willing to reconsider cannabis,” says Goldner. “Since the DEA is reconsidering cannabis, state politicians and local police departments can also be flexible and move away from prohibition, towards the regulation of cannabis.”

The rescheduling of cannabis could have a tremendous impact on the growth of the cannabis industry, including more clinical trials, medical research and physician participation. It could also open the door for more federal agency involvement, as the Schedule I status inhibits any EPA research on cannabis pesticide use or FDA guidance on food and drug good manufacturing practices. When reached for comment, the FDA’s press office said they could not speculate on any involvement in the matter.

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?

Cannabis Coaching & Compliance

What You Need to Know About Food Allergies

By Maureen McNamara
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I rolled up my sleeve and turned my hand palm up. The doctor placed a medieval looking torture device, 18 needles loaded with potential allergic venom right onto my little kid arm. Then, BAM – shot it right into me. Then we waited to see what, if anything, would happen. Would one of those spots react? Would we see some swelling? Where the hell was my lollipop? Hopefully we wouldn’t discover that I was allergic to sugar.

Okay, so maybe that description is a bit dramatic. I do hope that allergy testing protocol has improved over the decades.

Do you have allergies? Is there a certain time of year that makes you sneeze up a storm, your eyes water and you wonder when the pollen is going to ease up?

It is uncomfortable. And if you have or crossed paths with people that have a food allergy… it is way more than uncomfortable. It can be deadly.

In America alone, there are 15 million+ people with food allergies.

Here are the most common culprits in the world of food allergies:

  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Dairy
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish & shellfish

Be aware, even if these items are not an ingredient in what you are producing- cross contact (the transferring of allergens from one food to another food) can create reactions as well.

Here are a few of the mild symptoms:

  • Hives
  • Redness of the skin or around the eyes
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sneezing

Here are some of the severe allergic reactions:

  • Obstructive swelling of the lips, tongue, and/or throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Drop in blood pressure (feeling faint, confused, weak, passing out)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Death

Management and kitchen staff must be thoroughly trained regarding the dangers of food allergens and cross contact. Food safety training can help prevent your customers or patients from having a food-allergic reaction, which can lead to a medical emergency.

Here is a document, developed by the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) and the University of Nebraska, that shares details about how to create a manufacturing plan to ensure safe production with a focus on reducing potential allergic reactions.

In the cannabis industry, I know we are committed to contributing to people’s wellness. And when we produce infused products, ensuring that your patients receive a wholesome product is essential.

Here’s to your team increasing their knowledge, creating the best products and your thriving success with raving (hiveless) fans!