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Steven Burton

Top 4 Food Safety Hazards for the Cannabis Industry

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

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

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

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

Aflatoxins on Cannabis Bud

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

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

Chemical Residues on Cannabis Plants

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

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

Pathogenic Contamination from Pest Infestations

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

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

Pathogenic Contamination Due to Improper Employee Handling

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

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

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

Soapbox

Human Error? No Problem

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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If you are in the business of growing cannabis, you should be aware of the common reasons for production losses, how to address root causes and how to prevent future occurrences in a sustainable way. Human error is the number one root cause identified in investigations for defects in the cultivation business. Sadly, little is known about the nature of these errors, mainly because our quest for the truth ends where it should begin, once we know it was a human error or is “someone’s fault.”

Yes, human error usually explains the reason for the occurrence, but the reason for that error remains unexplained and consequently the corrective and preventive actions fail to address the underlying conditions for that failure. This, in turn, translates into ineffective action plans that result in creating non-value added activities, wasting resources and money as well as product.

Human error can occur when workers are in direct contact with the plant

So after investigating thousands of human error events and establishing systems to improve human reliability in manufacturing facilities, it became even clearer to me, the need to have good, human-engineered standard operating procedures (SOPs).

In the cannabis growing process, there are different types of mistakes that, when analyzed, all can be addressed in the same manner. For example, some common errors that we see are either overwatering or nutrient burn, which can occur when the plant is overfed. The same is true in the opposite scenario; underfeeding or under watering lead to problems as well. If your process is not automated, the reason for these failures was most likely human error. Now, why did the person make that mistake? Was there a procedure in place? Was the employee trained? Is there a specific process with steps, sub-steps, quantities and measures? Were tools available to be able to do the task correctly? There is so much that can be done about these questions if we had clear, well-written and simple, but specific instructions. The benefits greatly outweigh the effort required.

Also, besides providing step-by-step instructions to avoid commission errors (to perform incorrectly as opposed to omit some step), there are other types of errors that can be avoided with SOPs.

Decision making like detecting nutrient deficiencies can lead to human error.

Decision-making is another reason why we sometimes get different results than the ones expected. If during your process there are critical, knowledge-based decisions, workers need to be able to get all the information to detect as well as correct situations. Some decisions are, for example, when (detection) and how (steps) should I remove bud rot? Is there a critical step in the process (caution) to avoid other plants from becoming affected? Any information on the what, how, when, where and why reduces the likelihood of a decision error, later described as obvious.

When we face manufacturing challenges like nutrient deficiency in a particular stage, mold, fungus, gnats or even pollination of females, we want to do whatever we can to prevent it from happening again. So consider that from avoiding to detecting errors, procedures are a critical factor when improving human performance.

Here are some guidelines when writing procedures to prevent human error.

  1. Use them. Enforce the use of procedures at all times. As humans, we overestimate our abilities and tend to see procedures as an affront to our skills.
  2. Make sure it is a helpful procedure and users are involved in the process. People that participate in writing rules are more likely to follow them.
  3. Make sure they are available for their use.
  4. All critical activities should have a procedure.
  5. The procedure needs to be clear, have a good format, clear graphics, appropriate level of detail and specific presentation of limits.
  6. Make sure that facts, sequence and other requirements are correct and all possible conditions are considered e.g. “what if analysis”.

Human error won’t be eradicated unless we are able to really identify what is causing humans to err. If eliminating or “fixing” the actual individual eliminates or potentially reduces the probabilities of making that mistake again, then addressing the employee would be effective. But if there is a chance that the next in line will be able to make the same mistakes, consider evaluating human factors and not the human. Take a closer look and your process, system and ultimately your procedures.

Ask the Expert: Straight Talk on Safety, Defense and Security, Part II

By Aaron G. Biros, Bruce E. Lesniak, Lezli Engelking
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In this week’s Straight Talk on Safety, Defense and Security, we answer a reader’s question about traceability in quality processes and offer some practical advice for building a safety and security strategy. Travis Lodolinsky from Gleason Technology submitted this week’s question. For a response, we sit down with Lezli Engelking, founder of the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS), to help answer your questions. If you have questions about safety, defense and security in cannabis, please ask them in the comments section below and we will address them in the next edition of Straight Talk on Safety, Defense and Security.

T. Lodolinsky: How are safety processes being tracked in the industry to ensure regulations and quality assurance are being uniformly enforced throughout?

Lezli Engelking: In related industries, such as herbal products or pharmaceuticals, the FDA has created guidelines, or current good manufacturing processes (CGMP) that control for the quality, consistency and safety of the products being produced. Businesses must be certified by independent third parties to demonstrate they are following CGMP to protect public health and consumer safety. CGMP is a proactive approach to quality assurance. A basic tenant of CGMP is that quality cannot be tested into a product after it is made; quality must be built into the product during all stages of the manufacturing process. One common misconception is that CGMP only covers the process of manufacturing itself. CGMP actually covers all aspects of the production process including materials, premises, equipment, storage, staff training and hygiene, how complaints are handled and record keeping.

Because cannabis is federally illegal in the US, the FDA has not developed cannabis-specific CGMP guidelines, so lawmakers do not have the benefit of having those guidelines available to base regulations on. So to answer your question, state cannabis regulations do not track processes and procedures used by cannabis businesses to control for safety or quality because they do not have the federal guidelines. Instead, most state cannabis regulations currently take a reactive approach to safety, mandating only for testing of the final product. While testing is an extremely important and valuable part of any quality management program, just analytics is not enough.

This is precisely why FOCUS was created and how they assist business owners and regulators, while fulfilling the mission of protecting public health, consumer safety and safeguarding the environment. The FOCUS standards are a cannabis-specific system of guidelines (cannabis-specific current good manufacturing practices) to ensure products are consistently produced according to quality standards. FOCUS provides detailed guidance and independent, third party auditing services for all key aspects of the cannabis industry including cultivation, extraction, infusion, retail, laboratory, security, packaging, labeling and sustainability.

CannabisIndustryJournal: What advice can you offer to cannabis businesses for product safety, defense and security prior to standardization?

Bruce E. Lesniak: Businesses that make products infused with cannabis (I call these businesses “plus one” companies because they produce products that include one more ingredient than traditional food products), require a carefully written master plan that specifically addresses the unique qualities, sensitivities and critical areas of the business. When building a comprehensive plan I address three questions:

  • Why (identify the why, this is your preventative, overarching strategy)?
  • How (addresses the “why question” with products, services and training)?
  • What (what is your reactive strategy that addresses actions and activities to be performed in the event of a breech)?

First and foremost, consumer-facing businesses must safeguard their products to the public. One product recall or illness related incident could spell disaster. Build your plan correctly the first time. Contact an industry expert to review your facility and help build and implement your plan. This will save you money by quickly exposing vulnerabilities and providing corrective measures specific to your business needs and requirements. Even though product safety and defense are closely related to security and should share a complementary strategy, product safety and defense are unique (due to standards and regulations), and should be treated as such.

Banks not accepting industry money complicates normal business operations and security planning, causing retail operations to handle and store large sums of cash. I asked industry expert and security professional, Tony Gallo of Sapphire Protection LLC, what is the single most important piece of security equipment you are currently providing for the retail and dispensary owner? “Design an air tight policy of handling money,” says Gallo. “Remove money often from cash registers and place it into the best safe for your application!”

Spend time familiarizing yourself with all things product safety and defense (there are volumes written on food safety and food defense, thus the “plus one” reference). This a great starting point and protecting the consumer protects your business. When it comes to designing your security application, consult an expert! Take into account that the cannabis industry is unique due to its “plus one” ingredient. Therefore you need to build your security systems, applications and policies to systematically protect your employees, facility, suppliers, transportation, manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, supply chain and brand.