Regardless of whether your grow is indoor or in a greenhouse, mold is a factor that all cultivators must consider.
After weeks of careful tending, pruning and watering to encourage a strong harvest, all cultivators are looking to sell their crop for the highest market value. A high mold presence, measured through a total yeast and mold count (TYMC), can cause a change of plans by decreasing crop value. But it doesn’t have to.
There are simple steps that any cultivator can take that will greatly eliminate the risk of mold in a grow. Below are some basic best practices to incorporate into your operation to reduce contaminants and mold growth:
Isolate dirty tasks. If you are cleaning pots, filling pots or scrubbing trimming scissors, keep these and other dirty tasks away from grow and process areas. Dirty tasks can contaminate the grow area and encourage mold growth. Set up a “dirty room” that does not share heating, ventilation and air conditioning with clean areas.
Compartmentalize the grow space. Mold can launch spores at speeds up to 55 miles per hour up to eight feet away without any air current. For this reason, if mold growth begins, it can become a huge problem very quickly. Isolate or remove a problem as soon as it is discovered- better to toss a plant than to risk your crop.
No drinks or food allowed. Any drinks or food, with the exception of water, are completely off limits in a grow space. If one of your employees drops a soda on the ground, the sugars in the soda provide food for mold and yeast to grow. You’d be surprised how much damage a capful of soda or the crust of a sandwich can do.
Empty all trash daily. Limiting contaminants in turn limits the potential for issues. This is an easy way to keep your grow clean and sterile.
Axe the brooms. While a broom may seem like the perfect way to clean the floor, it is one of the fastest ways to stir up dirt, dust, spores and contaminants, and spread them everywhere. Replace your brooms with hepa filter backpack vacuums, but be sure that they are always emptied outside at the end of the work day.
No standing water or high humidity. Mold needs water to grow, therefore standing water or high humidity levels gives mold the sustenance to sporulate. Pests also proliferate with water. Remove standing water and keep the humidity level as low as possible without detriment to your plants.
Require coveralls for all employees. Your employee may love his favorite jean jacket, but the odds are that it hasn’t been cleaned in months and is covered with mold spores. Clean clothing for your staff is a must. Provide coveralls that are washed at least once a week if not daily.
Keep things clean. A clean and organized grow area will have a huge impact on mold growth. Clean pots with oxidate, mop floors with oxidate every week, keep the areas in front of air returns clean and clutter-free, and clean floor drains regularly. The entire grow and everything in it should be scrubbed top to bottom after each harvest.
Keep it cool. Keep curing areas cool and storage areas cold where possible. The ideal temperature for a curing area is roughly 60 degrees and under 32 degrees for a storage area. Just like food, the lower the temperature, the better it keeps. High temperature increases all molecular and biological activity, which causes things to deteriorate faster than at cooler temperatures. However, curing temperature is a function of water activity more than anything.
Be Careful With Beneficials. Beneficial insects certainly have their place in the grow environment. However, if you have a problem with mold on only a small percentage of plants, any insect can act as a carrier for spores and exacerbate the problem. By the same token, pests spread mold more effectively than beneficials because they produce rapidly, where beneficials die if there aren’t pests for them to eat. It is best to use beneficials early in the cycle and only when necessary.
The cannabis industry is probably more informed about patients and consumers of their products than the general food industry. In addition to routine illness and stress in the population, cannabis consumers are fighting cancer, HIV/AIDS and other immune disorders. Consumers who are already ill are immunocompromised. Transplant recipients purposely have their immune system suppressed in the process of a successful transplant. These consumers have pre-existing conditions where the immune system is weakened. If the immunocompromised consumer is exposed to viral or bacterial pathogens through cannabis products, the consumer is more likely to suffer from a viral infection or foodborne illness as a secondary illness to the primary illness. In the case of consumers with weakened immune systems, it could literally kill them.Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments.
The cannabis industry shoulders great responsibility in both the medical and adult use markets. In addition to avoiding chemical hazards and determining the potency of the product, the cannabis industry must manufacture products safe for consumption. There are three ways to control pathogens and ensure a safe product: prevent them from entering, kill them and control their growth.
Prevent microorganisms from getting in
Think about everything that is outdoors that will physically come in a door to your facility. Control the quality of ingredients, packaging, equipment lubricants, cleaning agents and sanitizers. Monitor employee hygiene. Next, you control everything within your walls: employees, materials, supplies, equipment and the environment. You control receiving, employee entrance, storage, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. At every step in the process, your job is to prevent the transfer of pathogens into the product from these sources.
The combination of raw materials to manufacture your product is likely to include naturally occurring pathogens. Traditional heat methods like roasting and baking will kill most pathogens. Remember, sterility is not the goal. The concern is that a manufacturer uses heat to achieve organoleptic qualities like color and texture, but the combination of time and temperature may not achieve safety. It is only with a validated process that safety is confirmed. If we model safety after what is required of food manufacturers by the Food and Drug Administration, validation of processes that control pathogens is required. In addition to traditional heat methods, non-thermal methods for control of pathogens includes irradiation and high pressure processing and are appropriate for highly priced goods, e.g. juice. Killing is achieved in the manufacturing environment and on processing equipment surfaces after cleaning and by sanitizing.
If you have done everything reasonable to stop microorganisms from getting in the product and you have a validated step to kill pathogens, you may still have spoilage microorganisms in the product. It is important that all pathogens have been eliminated. Examples of pathogens include Salmonella, pathogenic Escherichia coli, also called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria monocytogenes. These three common pathogens are easily destroyed by proper heat methods. Despite steps taken to kill pathogens, it is theoretically possible a pathogen is reintroduced after the kill step and before packaging is sealed at very low numbers in the product. Doctors do not know how many cells are required for a consumer to get ill, and the immunocompromised consumer is more susceptible to illness. Lab methods for the three pathogens mentioned are designed to detect very low cell numbers. Packaging and control of growth factors will stop pathogens from growing in the product, if present.
Control the growth of microorganisms
These growth factors will control the growth of pathogens, and you can use the factors to control spoilage microbes as well. To grow, microbes need the same things we do: a comfortable temperature, water, nutrients (food), oxygen, and a comfortable level of acid. In the lab, we want to find the pathogen, so we optimize these factors for growth. When you control growth in your product, one hurdle may be enough to stop growth; sometimes multiple hurdles are needed in combination. Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments. They are at the bottom of the ocean under pressure. They are in hot springs at the temperature of boiling water. The diversity is immense. Luckily, we can focus on the growth factors for human pathogens, like Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Temperature. Human pathogens prefer to grow at the temperature of the human body. In manufacture, keep the time a product is in the range of 40oF to 140oF as short as possible. You control pathogens when your product is at very hot or very cold temperatures. Once the product cools after a kill step in manufacturing, it is critical to not reintroduce a pathogen from the environment or personnel. Clean equipment and packaging play key roles in preventing re-contamination of the product.
Water. At high temperatures as in baking or roasting, there is killing, but there is also the removal of water. In the drying process that is not at high temperature, water is removed to stop the growth of mold. This one hurdle is all that is needed. Even before mold is controlled, bacterial and yeast growth will stop. Many cannabis candies are safe, because water is not available for pathogen growth. Packaging is key to keep moisture out of the product.
Nutrients. In general, nutrients are going to be available for pathogen growth and cannot be controlled. In most products nutrients cannot be removed, however, recipes can be adjusted. Recipes for processed food add preservatives to control growth. In cannabis as in many plants, there may be natural compounds which act as preservatives.
Oxygen. With the great diversity of bacteria, there are bacteria that require the same oxygen we breathe, and mold only grows in oxygen. There are bacteria that only grow in the absence of oxygen, e.g. the bacteria responsible for botulism. And then there are the bacteria and yeast in between, growing with or without oxygen. Unfortunately, most human pathogens will grow with or without oxygen, but slowly without oxygen. The latter describes the growth of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. While a package seals out air, the growth is very slow. Once a package is opened and the product is exposed to air, growth accelerates.
Acid. Fermented or acidified products have a higher level of acid than non-acid products; the acid acts as a natural preservative. The more acid, the more growth is inhibited. Generally, acid is a hurdle to growth, however and because of diversity, some bacteria prefer acid, like probiotics which are non-pathogenic. Some pathogens, like E. coli, have been found to grow in low acid foods, e.g. juice, even though the preference is for non-acidic environments.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
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.
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.
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.
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 testing laboratories around the country are expanding quickly, taking on new clients and growing their business incrementally. Many of these labs are receiving a large number of test requests from growers for potency testing, terpene profiling, pesticide screening, residual solvent screening, heavy metal testing, microbial analysis and even genetic testing. To keep pace with the number of test requests received, efficient data, sample and test management is imperative.
Considering the magnitude of cannabis testing, data management using spreadsheets is a serious impediment to quality assurance. Data being recorded in spreadsheets is error-prone and difficult to manage. Furthermore, using spreadsheets does not allow labs to adhere to regulatory guidelines that demand strict accounting for every gram of the sample, right from reception, consumption for testing, to disposal.
To overcome such data management challenges and improve the operational efficiency of cannabis testing laboratories, a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) plays a significant role. LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for managing analytical and operational activities. LIMS enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating the manual data entry. With its built-in audit trail capability, LIMS helps labs adhere to regulatory standards.
LIMS can provide companies with a method to manage samples, records and test results, and ensures regulatory compliance by increasing traceability. LIMS can also be integrated with other lab instrumentation and enterprise systems, enabling easier transmission of information across the lab and the organization, reducing manual efforts and improving decision-making.
Multiple resources are also available to assist labs in preparing for quality assurance and accreditation, LIMS being one of them. LIMS can help cannabis labs with instrument integration, and automate reporting to help improve efficiencies and reduce errors. LIMS, such as CloudLIMS Lite, a cloud-based LIMS, automates cannabis-testing workflows right from sample collection, data recording, managing test chain of custody, sample weight accounting to report generation. With data security and audit trails, a LIMS provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation for highly regulated labs. Above all, cloud-enabled systems are often low in the total cost of acquisition, have maintenance outsourced, and are scalable to help meet the ever-changing business and regulatory compliance needs.
Cloud-based products are secure, easy to deploy and scalable. A cloud product is typically hosted on a server with a guaranteed uptime of 99.5%, allowing for a reliable system, accessible 24×7. Cloud-based LIMS have automatic data backup mechanism that allow for quick turnarounds in case of a server failure or in the eventuality of a natural disaster.
With LIMS in place, cannabis labs can manage sample and requisition-centric records, track sample quantity and location, integrate the test data, and provide online reports to clients. This in turn, reduces the turnaround time for testing and improves the operational efficiency. Besides, audit trail of each and every activity performed by the lab personnel is recorded in the system to ensure that the lab follows regulatory compliance.
Editor’s Note: This is a condensed version of a poster that was submitted and displayed at this year’s Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon. The authors of the original poster are Arun Apte, Stephen Goldman, Aditi Gade and Shonali Paul.
Last week, the Colorado Department of Revenue (DOR), the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced a health and safety advisory for a large number of cannabis products grown and produced by Tree of Wellness Inc., doing business as Tree of Wellness. The health and safety advisory, synonymous with a product recall, was issued due to the detection of off-label pesticides in cannabis grown by Tree of Wellness.
Tests found Myclobutanil present in batches going all the way back to May, 2017, with some contaminated batches as recent as late October.
According to the press release, the CDA confirmed the presence of Myclobutanil, a near-ubiquitous fungicide used in a wide range of agricultural practices. The chemical has been a thorn in the side of the cannabis industry for being used off-label, or inappropriately, on cultivating cannabis.
Myclobutanil is the active ingredient in Eagle 20, a pesticide used frequently in other agricultural fields like grapes, apples and spinach. According to UC Davis professor and Steep Hill scientist Dr. Don Land, Myclobutanil becomes significantly more dangerous when heated, or smoked. That chemical reaction produces hydrogen cyanide, an extraordinarily toxic chemical. Because of this, and the lack of research on what happens when these chemicals are burned or heated, there is a growing public concern that cannabis laced with a chemical like Myclobutanil can cause adverse health reactions.
The public health and safety advisory says they detected Myclobutanil in cannabis flower, trim, concentrates, and infused-products from Tree of Wellness. The CDPHE and DOR recommend consumers that have the affected products return them to where they were purchased for proper disposal.
Consumers in Colorado should check their labels to see if their products fall under the recall. Look for the Medical Optional Premises Cultivation License 403-00664 and/or Medical Marijuana Center License 402-00443. The recall includes batches of 23 different strains grown by Tree of Wellness.
Ahead of the state’s implementation of their full adult use legalization in early 2018, California is working on improving their public outreach. Last week, the California Department of Public Health launched “Let’s Talk Cannabis”, a website dedicated to consumer education.
About two weeks ago, the Bureau of Cannabis Control, California’s state regulatory body for the cannabis industry, launched a rebranding effort of their own, with a new logo, website and even an Instagram account. Their “Cannabis Portal” is a website dedicated to helping those in the industry get updated information on licensing, new regulations and other news and events.
The Bureau’s upgraded website will better help business owners stay up-to-date on upcoming regulations and licensing applications, according to a press release. Judging by their Facebook (@bccinfo.dca), Twitter (@bccinfo_dca) and Instagram pages, the regulatory body seeks to have a more public presence online than other states’ regulatory bodies.
The state’s three regulatory bodies are featured on the portal. The Bureau of Cannabis Control is just one regulatory arm of the government, basically responsible for licensing dispensaries, distributors and laboratories. The Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch, a division of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), will presumably regulate manufacturers of infused products. CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing is under the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which will oversee regulating growers of medical and adult use cannabis. That regulatory body is also in charge of the state’s seed-to-sale traceability software system.
The Department of Public Health’s “Let’s Talk Cannabis” website is more of a consumer-focused educational tool. It features frequently asked questions, some links to other resources, information on legalization and information for the youth, parents and pregnant and breastfeeding women. That consumer-facing website offers tips for parents on storing cannabis and keeping it out of reach of children, in addition to advice for responsibly consuming cannabis.
It will be interesting to see how they plan on using those social media pages in the future. At first glance, they could be excellent tools for regulators to communicate with licensees, to help explain common regulatory compliance errors or to provide tips and tricks for staying compliant. The consumer-facing portal could also be a great means for communicating product recalls or public health and safety alerts, things that Colorado and Oregon currently struggle with.
Laboratories throughout the world and in a variety of industries get accredited to demonstrate their competency. In the cannabis industry, some states are beginning to require it and many labs get accredited even if their state doesn’t require it. So what does accreditation mean and why is it so important?
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a standard-setting organization that works to promote industrial and commercial standards. The standards set by ISO are designed to help prove a product’s safety and quality to a certain minimum level.
The ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standard sets specific requirements to demonstrate the competence of a lab for carrying out tests. It essentially shows customers or regulators that a lab has the skills and scientific know-how to perform testing, certifying the lab is capable. Accreditation means certifying a lab to that standard and is synonymous with both quality and competence of an organization.
The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), founded in 1978, is a non-profit, internationally recognized accreditation body in the United States that offers laboratory and laboratory-related accreditation services and training. They have worked in the cannabis industry to accredit a number of cannabis laboratories to the ISO/IEC 17025:2005 standard. In this series of articles, we sit down with experts from A2LA to learn more about cannabis lab accreditation, why it’s so important and some of the challenges labs face when seeking accreditation.
In the first part of this series, we sit down with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics. Michelle earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology at Towson State University and then attended Hood College, earning a master’s certificate in Regulatory Compliance in Biomedical Science. She has worked at A2LA for eight years, assisting in the accreditation of food testing, environmental testing and cannabis testing laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025, as well as performing quality system assessments. She also facilitates a number of accreditation programs including Field Sampling Measurement Organizations, STAC (Air Emissions) and Cannabis Testing. Bradac is also a member of the ASTM Cannabis Working Group and the ACIL Cannabis Working Group.
In the next part of this series, we will hear about specific requirements in states, some of the benefits of using ISO/IEC 17025 and the influx of start-up or novice testing laboratories.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What is Laboratory Accreditation?
Michelle Bradac: Laboratory accreditation is a formal means of determining and recognizing the technical competence of laboratories to perform specific types of testing, via the use of an independent third party accreditation body. It provides laboratory users a mechanism to identify and select reliable testing organizations. Use of ISO/IEC 17025 as a basis for laboratory accreditation is internationally recognized as THE conformity assessment standard to which laboratories are accredited; it is used in the USA by both Public (State, local, federal (FDA, USDA, CDC, DoD and EPA) and private laboratories for testing of foods & feeds, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco, natural products and cannabis (among other materials and products).
CIJ: How does laboratory accreditation benefit the cannabis testing laboratory?
Michelle: It provides a framework for continuous improvement and self-correction where the cannabis testing laboratory data management system is independently reviewed and blinded sample Proficiency Testing is encouraged.
CIJ: How does laboratory accreditation benefit the medical cannabis recommending physician?
Michelle: The physician gains a greater degree of assurance that the material provided by the dispensary is what the label says it is. This is especially important in working with patients that are immunocompromised where heavy metals, residual solvents and harmful pesticides could have negative health consequences.
CIJ: How does the testing of medical cannabis by an accredited laboratory benefit the patient?
Michelle: The patient gains increased confidence that the label accurately reflects the potency and chemical properties of the product.
CIJ: What specific challenges does A2LA face in accrediting cannabis testing laboratories?
Michelle: Much of the typical infrastructure is lacking or only now being developed. This ranges from proficiency testing programs, Reference Material Producers, method development and sampling procedures. There is also difficulty in ensuring that laboratories are appropriately validating methods in states where cannabis product is not yet available.
CIJ: Why is A2LA the optimal choice for ensuring the quality and reliability of the results produced by medical marijuana testing laboratories?
Michelle: A2LA has by far the most experience as an accreditor of laboratories that perform testing of natural plant products. We have been performing assessments of and granting accreditation to these types of laboratories for over twenty years. This results in our staff and our assessor corps who are then able to provide valuable insight and technical sophistication that other accreditation bodies do not have. Specific to the cannabis industry, A2LA is also represented in all the major standards development organizations, tradeshows and industry groups; which strengthens our understanding of the industry and ability to assist our customers towards meeting their goal of obtaining accreditation.
In July, we sat down with the folks at Digipath, Inc. when they received their testing license in Nevada for the adult use market. In that conversation, they mentioned they were looking to expand into California.
According to a press release published September 25th, DigiPath, Inc. has entered a joint venture to establish their first cannabis-testing lab in California. They will be working with Don Ashley, an experienced real estate developer and cannabis entrepreneur, to launch Humboldt Botanical, LLC, conducting business under the name “Digipath Botanical Testing”.
Ashley says they expect to be fully operational by Q1 of 2018. “We expect to break ground on this project in the next few weeks and hope to be operational in early Q1 2018 just after the state-wide adult-use market is expected to launch, as we have already obtained approval from the local planning authorities for the entire complex,” says Ashley.
Todd Denkin, president of Digipath, is optimistic for California’s market and the coming regulations. “The state of California is estimated to be the single largest cannabis market in the U.S. Adult-use cannabis legislation was approved by California residents last November, and we expect these new regulations to be implemented in 2018,” says Denkin. “The good news for the industry is that the requirements for cannabis testing will be significant, and we are excited to partner with Don and his team to pursue this opportunity in Humboldt County.”
Ashley is contributing roughly $2 million to build and equip the lab with instrumentation, while Digipath Labs will manage and supervise operations at the lab. According to the press release, Digipath will provide a non-exclusive license to use its intellectual property for the operation of the lab. Digipath Labs will retain rights over all the scientific data generated in the lab.
According to Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath, that data will be put to good use. “Digipath Labs has developed an algorithm for use in strain authentication based largely on terpene profiling from our testing lab in Nevada and we are eager to further test our hypothesis with an expanded dataset from cannabis grown in Northern California,” says Orser.
While testing labs are primarily seen as safeguards for public health and safety, using data to correctly identify strains is a relatively new concept. “Digipath Labs is all about public health and safety through testing for adulterants,” says Orser. “Another component to quality is having confidence in product authenticity at the dispensary level. Not only is the consumer buying quality assured products but truth in advertising when it comes to strain nomenclature.”
Denkin says they were proactive in working toward getting the license early on. “Our partners have been dealing with the local regulators while we have been providing the proper SOP’s for the local government in order to receive the proper licensure in the area,” says Denkin. Taking their experience from Nevada to California, Orser says they have been asked to present to the California Toxicology Association on their experience with cannabis testing in the highly regulated marketplace of Nevada.
The laboratory in Humboldt is going to be part of a “cannabis industrial park,” alongside an R&D facility, oils/concentrate manufacturing center, health and wellness center, distribution and processing facility, tissue culture nursery, hemp clothing outlet, and coffee bistro, according to the press release.
Looking forward to growing their business, Denkin says they hope to launch a lab in Southern California. “We do expect to have a larger footprint in California because of the size of the market and are looking for locations in Southern California as well,” says Denkin. When asked about any new plans to expand elsewhere, Denkin says they’ll let us know. “We are continuing with our business plan and actively seeking the right mergers and acquisitions. Stay tuned.”
Currently, there are no lab testing regulations for Florida’s medical cannabis market. Chris Martinez, co-founder and chief operating officer of EVIO Labs Florida, a veteran-owned business, is looking to change that.
When Martinez co-founded EVIO Labs Florida, he saw the need for a dedicated cannabis lab to ensure safety and quality of medicine for patients in the state. Partnering with EVIO Labs to accomplish this goal, Martinez secured a 5,500 sq. ft. facility in Broward County to test for potency, pesticides, microbial contaminants, terpenes, residual solvents and heavy metals. Their lab, a first of its kind in the industry, qualifies as a true pharmaceutical-grade clean room. This week, Martinez also secured their 2nd laboratory location in the City of Gainsville, where they will test for potency, microbials, terpenes and residual solvents. And he isn’t doing it on the cheap. “Our Broward lab is powered by Shimadzu with over $1.2M in the latest testing equipment utilizing LCMS technology with the world’s fastest polarity switching time of 5 m/sec and scan speeds of 30,000 u/sec with UF Qarray sensitivity 90 times that of previously available technologies,” says Martinez.
Martinez, an entrepreneur at heart, started the lab with a team of experts to become the first completely cannabis-focused laboratory in Florida. Jorge Segredo, their head chemist and quality assurance director, has over 18 years of experience in the development of nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products under ISO and FDA accreditation. Segredo has helped launch three independent FDA-accredited laboratories and has extensive knowledge of HPLC, GCMS, LCMS, ICPMS technologies and development/validation of testing methods and procedures. Cynthia Brewer, their director of operations, was an active participant in the 2017 state legislative session and has been an advocate for medical cannabis, working with legislators on a suitable framework to increase patient access to cannabis.
EVIO is one of the nation’s leaders in cannabis testing, research science and advisory services. It is an evolving network of laboratories with nine EVIO cannabis laboratories operating in five different states: Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and California. “After speaking with industry chemists around the country for months, the EVIO name was constantly brought up in conversation,” says Martinez. “When we spoke with the EVIO Team it was an easy decision for us to partner.” He says Lori Glauser, chief operating officer of EVIO, and William Waldrop, chief executive officer of EVIO, are truly visionaries in the cannabis industry.
According to Martinez, their licensing agreement with EVIO Labs (OTC:SGBYD) marked a first for the publicly traded company with exclusivity in the Florida market. The agreement includes proprietary testing methodologies, operating procedures, training and support.
In addition to testing cannabis for safety and quality, they are launching a technology platform called MJ Buddy, essentially a software tool that takes efficacy feedback from patients and uses testing and genetic data they gather from EVIO Labs across the country. “This will provide real data to the cannabis industry as to the medical benefits for thousands of patients in relation to the genotype and cannabinoid profiles of their medicine,” says Martinez.
Of the states that have legalized some form of cannabis, a large number of them have some lab testing regulations on the book, with some more comprehensive than others. Martinez says he hopes the Florida Department of Health, Office of Medical Marijuana Use follows some of the more thorough state programs, such as Oregon. His team has compiled a set of documents for regulators with recommendations for regulating the lab testing industry.
Without any regulations on paper, it is up to businesses to produce safe and quality medicine, without any oversight. EVIO Labs Florida follows FDA Good Laboratory Practices, has an ISO 17025:2005 accreditation pending, and is working on TNI 2016 accreditation.
When discussing what he wants to see happen with Florida’s regulatory framework, Martinez says the rules need to be specific to Florida. For example, due to the climate being so humid, microbial contaminant testing for things like yeast and mold will be particularly imperative. Because processing methods like butane and alcohol extraction are legal, he emphasizes the need for comprehensive residual solvents testing. “The most important regulation would be to have the laboratories select the samples at the MMTC facility and have the state randomly verify laboratory results to ensure accurate unbiased testing,” says Martinez.
In addition to that, he hopes their pesticide thresholds will be realistic and based on actual science. “We believe the public should receive carcinogenic data for products that are inhaled,” says Martinez. “Chemicals may be introduced into the processing of cannabis to vape liquid that may cause harm. This is important information for public health and communication of the risk related to exposure to such materials.” Martinez says EVIO Labs Florida was founded on the belief that through technology and science we can increase safety and patient outcomes.