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HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the Cannabis Industry: Part 2

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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HACCP

HACCP is a food safety program developed in the 1960s for the food manufacturing industry, mandated for meat, seafood and juice and adopted by foodservice for the safe serving of meals at restaurants. With state requirements for the safe production of cannabis-infused products, namely edibles, facilities may be inspected against HACCP principles. The cannabis industry and state inspectors recognize the need for safe edible manufacture. Lessons can be learned from the food industry, which has advanced beyond HACCP plans to food safety plans, starting with procurement and including the shipment of finished product to customers.

In my work with the food industry, I write HACCP and food safety plans and deliver training on food safety. In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about the identification of hazards, which is the first step in HACCP plan development. Before we continue with the next HACCP step, I will discuss Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). GMPs are the foundation on which HACCP is built. In other words, without GMPs in place, the facility will not have a successful HACCP program. GMPs are required in the food, dietary supplement and pharmaceutical industries, all under the enforcement of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Without federal regulation for cannabis edible manufacture, there may not be state-mandated requirements for GMPs. Let me warn you that any food safety program will not succeed without proper control of GMPs.HACCP

GMPs cover all of your programs and procedures to support food safety without having a direct, instant control. For example, when brownies are baked as edibles, food safety is controlled by the time and temperature of baking. A written recipe and baking procedure are followed for the edible. The time and temperature can be recorded to provide documentation of proper baking. In the food industry, this is called a process preventative control, which is critical to food safety and is part of a HACCP plan. Failure of proper time and temperature of baking not only leads to an unacceptable product in terms of quality, but results in an unsafe product that should not be sold.

Back to GMPs. Now think of everything that was done up to the steps of mixing and baking. Let’s start with personnel. Facilities for edibles have hiring practices. Once an employee is hired, the employee is trained, and training will include food safety procedures. When working at the job after training, the employee measuring ingredients will demonstrate proper grooming and hand washing. Clean aprons, hairnets, beard nets and gloves will be provided by the facility and worn by the employee. The same goes for the employee that bakes and the employee that packages the edible. One category of GMPs is Personnel.

Edibles facilities are not foodservice; they are manufacturing. A second GMP category is cleaning and sanitizing. Food safety is controlled through proper cleaning and sanitizing of food contact surfaces (FCS). The edible facility will have in place the frequency and methods for cleaning all parts of the facility- outside, offices, restrooms, break room and others. GMPs cover the general cleaning procedures and procedures for cleaning receiving, storage; what we would consider processing to include weighing, process steps and packaging; finished product storage and shipping. Management of the facility decides the methods and frequency of cleaning and sanitizing with greater care given to processing. Without proper cleaning and sanitizing, a facility cannot achieve food safety.

I could go on and on about GMPs. Other GMPs include water safety, integrity of the buildings, pest control program, procurement, sewage disposal and waste disposal. Let’s transition back to HACCP. In Part 1 of this series, I explained identification of hazards. Hazards are one of three types: biological, chemical and physical.

At this point, I am not surprised if you are overwhelmed. After reading Part 1 of this series, did you form a food safety team? At each edibles facility, there should be at least one employee who is trained externally in food safety to the standard that foodservice meets. Classes are offered locally and frequently. When the facility is ready, the next step of training is a HACCP workshop for the food industry, not foodservice. Edibles facilities are not foodservice; they are manufacturing. Many colleges and associations provide HACCP training. Finally, at the least, one employee should attend a workshop for Preventive Controls Qualified Individual.

To institute proper GMPs, go to ConnectFood.com for a GMP checklist. Did you draw up a flow diagram after reading Part 1? With a flow diagram that starts at Receiving and ends at Shipping, the software at ConnectFood.com takes you through the writing steps of a HACCP or food safety plan. There are many resources out there for GMPs, so it can get overwhelming. ConnectFood.com is my favorite resource.

The next step in HACCP development after identification of hazards is to identify the exact step where the hazard will be controlled. Strictly speaking, HACCP only covers process preventive controls, which typically start with a weigh step and end with a packaging step. A facility may also have a step where temperature must be controlled for food safety, e.g. cooling. In HACCP, there are commonly two process preventive controls:

  • Biological hazard of Salmonella and Escherichia coli: the heat step
  • Physical hazard of metal: metal detector

Strictly speaking, HACCP does not include cleaning, sanitizing and supplier approval for procurement of ingredients and packaging. I hope you see that HACCP is not enough. There have been hundreds of recalls and outbreaks due to problems in non-processing steps. The FDA requires food manufactures to go beyond HACCP and follow a written food safety plan, which includes hazards controlled at these steps:

  • Biological hazard of Listeria monocytogenes: cleaning and sanitizing of the processing environment and equipment
  • Physical hazards coming in with ingredients: supplier approval
  • Physical hazard of glass and hard plastic: Here I am thinking of glass breaking or plastic pieces flying off buckets. This is an internal hazard and is controlled by following written procedures. The written document is a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).
  • Chemical hazard of pesticides: supplier approval
  • Chemical hazard of mycotoxins: supplier approval
  • Chemical hazard of allergens: supplier approval, label check at Receiving and product labeling step

Does a cannabis edible facility honestly not care or not control for pesticides in ingredients because this is not part of HACCP? No. There are two ways for procurement of ingredients in which pesticides are controlled. Either the cannabis cultivation is controlled as part of the samebusiness or the facility works with a supplier to confirm the ingredient meets pesticide tolerances. Strictly speaking, this control is not part of HACCP. For this and many other reasons, HACCP is a good place to start the control of food safety when built on a solid foundation of GMPs. In the same way the food industry is required to go beyond HACCP with a food safety plan, the cannabis industry must go beyond HACCP.

My thoughts will be shared in a webinar on May 2nd hosted by CIJ and NEHA. I encourage you to listen in to continue this discussion.Please comment on this blog post below. I love feedback!

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From The Lab

The Case for ISO/IEC 17025 Accreditation in Cannabis Testing Laboratories

By Amy Ankrum
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Government regulations keep millions of Americans safe every year by controlling what companies can put in their products and the standards those products must meet to be sold to consumers.

Enter the strange case of legal cannabis: In order for cannabis to be legally distributed by licensed medical professionals and businesses, it must be tested. But unlike other consumable goods, cannabis is not regulated by the FDA. Without an overarching federal policy requiring cannabis testing laboratory accreditation, the testing and laboratory requirements differ greatly across state lines.For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important. 

To be federally regulated, cannabis would first have to be federally legalized. It turns out that states and businesses alike are not willing to wait for a federal mandate. Many states have begun to adopt standards for cannabis testing and some, such as Ohio, have even announced mandatory ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation for all cannabis testing laboratories. As the industry evolves, increased compliance expectations are certain to evolve in tandem.

Some cannabis labs have even taken the initiative to seek ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation of their own volition. Seth Wong, President of TEQ Analytics Laboratories, shared in a press release:

“By achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, TEQ Analytical Labs believes that we can address the concerns throughout the cannabis industry regarding insufficient and unreliable scientific analysis by providing our clients with State required tests that are accredited by an international standard.”

Other laboratories, such as DB Labs in Las Vegas and EVIO Labs in Florida are also leading the accreditation charge in their respective states, ahead of any state mandates.

There are key reasons why accreditation in cannabis testing labs is important. First and foremost, cannabis is a consumable product. Like fruits and vegetables, cannabis is prone to pesticides, fungi and contaminants. The result of putting a potentially hazardous material on the market without proper and documented testing could lead to a public health crisis. An accredited testing lab, however, will ensure that the cannabis products they test are free from harmful contaminants.

By utilizing role-based trainings, labs can trust employees are receiving proper onboarding.

For medical cannabis specifically, accredited testing facilities are especially important. Because many consumers of medical cannabis are immuno-compromised (such as in the case of chemotherapy patients), ensuring that products are free from any and all contaminants is critical. Further, in order to accurately determine both short- and long-term effects of prescribed cannabis consumption, accredited and compliant laboratories are necessary.

Accreditation standards like ISO/IEC 17025 also provide confidence that testing is performed properly and to an internationally accepted standard. Rather than returning a “pass/fail” rating on products, the Cannabis Safety Institute reports that an ISO/IEC 17025 laboratory is required to produce numerical accuracy percentages in testing for “at a minimum, cannabinoids, pesticides, microbiology, residual solvents, and water activity.” Reliable data sets that can be reviewed by both accreditors and the public foster trust between producers and consumers.

Finally, ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation demonstrates that a laboratory is properly staffed and trained. The Cannabis Safety Institute’s “Standards for Cannabis Testing Laboratories” explains that conducting proper analytical chemistry on cannabinoids (the chemical compounds extracted from cannabis that alter the brain’s neurotransmitter release) requires personnel who have met specific academic and training credentials. A system to monitor, manage and demonstrate proficiency is necessary to achieve and maintain accreditation. With electronic systems in place, this management and documentation minimizes risk and also minimizes administrative time tracking and maintaining training records.

Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming yearsFor cannabis testing labs, utilizing a comprehensive software solution to achieve and maintain compliance to standards such as ISO/IEC 17025 is key. Absent of a software solution, the necessary compliance requirements can become a significant burden to the organization. Paper tracking systems and complex spreadsheets open up organizations to the likelihood of errors and ultimately risk.

Because ISO/IEC 17025 has clearly defined expectations for training, a software solution also streamlines the training process while simultaneously documenting proficiency. By utilizing role-based trainings, organizations can be confident employees are receiving proper onboarding and in-service training. Additionally, the effectiveness of training can be proven with reports, which results in smoother audits and assessments.

Following the proper steps of a standardized process is key to improving and growing the cannabis industry in coming years- which means utilizing technology tools such as electronic workflows to ensure proper process controls. Beyond adding critical visibility, workflows also create efficiencies that can eliminate the need to increase staffing as companies expand and grow.

For an industry that is changing at a rapid pace, ensuring traceability, efficient processes and visibility across organizations is paramount. Using a system that enables automation, process control, document management and documented training procedures is a step in the right direction. With the proper software tools in place, cannabis testing labs can achieve compliance goals, demonstrate reliable and relevant results and most importantly ensure consumer safety.

Multi-analyte Configuration for Cannabis Testing Services

Managing Cannabis Testing Lab Workflows using LIMS

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

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

Cannabis Testing Workflows

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

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

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

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

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

Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory 

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

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

LIMS for Laboratory Automation

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

cloudlims screenshot
Real Time Test Status in CloudLIMS

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

How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs

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

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

Follows GLP guidelines

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

Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)

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

Eliminates manual typographical errors

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

Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Steven Burton

Top 4 Food Safety Hazards for the Cannabis Industry

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

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

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

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

Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud

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

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

Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants

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

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

Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations

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

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

Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling

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

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

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

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.

Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know

By Parastoo Yaghmaee, PhD
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Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.


Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.

The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.

Yeast & Mold

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

Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.

Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.

Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.

 What is TYMC?

TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.

Why is TYMC Measured?

TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators. 

Aspergillus species niger
Photo: Carlos de Paz, Flickr

The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.

Aspergillus flavus on culture.
Photo: Iqbal Osman, Flickr

Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4

Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11

For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.

References:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Complete%20Retail%20Marijuana%20Rules%20as%20of%20April%2014%202017.pdf
  2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-27/
  3. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/11791
  4. Kagen SL, Kurup VP, Sohnle PG, Fink JN. 1983. Marijuana smoking and fungal sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 71(4): 389-393.
  5. Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
  6. Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
  7. Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
  8. Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
  9. Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
  10. McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
  11. Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
  12. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-102

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.

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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.

commercialcultivator
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.

commcultivator3
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.