Tag Archives: growers

Jill Ellsworth, Willow Industries
FST Soapbox

Modeling Cannabis Safety from Food and Beverage Quality Regulations

By Jill Ellsworth
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Jill Ellsworth, Willow Industries

There’s a reason you can eat or drink pretty much anything you want from American grocery stores and not get sick. Food manufacturing is highly regulated and subject to rigorous quality control.

Before food and beverages hit store shelves, the manufacturer must have a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system in place. The HACCP system requires that potential hazards—biological, chemical and physical— be identified and controlled at specific points in the manufacturing process. In addition, fresh foods undergo a kill-step. This is the point in the manufacturing or packaging process where food is treated to minimize and remove deadly pathogens like bacteria, mold, fungus and E. coli.

Generally speaking, when cannabis hits dispensary shelves, a less stringent set of rules apply, despite the fact that cannabis is ingested, inhaled and used as medicine. Cultivators are required to test every batch, but each state differs in what is required for mandated testing. Compared to the way food is regulated, the cannabis industry still has a long way to go when it comes to consumer safety—and that poses a considerable public health risk. In the early stages of legalization, the handful of legal states did not have rigid cannabis testing measures in place, which led to inconsistent safety standards across the country. State governments have had a reactionary approach to updating testing guidelines, by and large implementing stricter standards in response to product recalls and customer safety complaints. While local regulators have had the best intentions in prioritizing consumer safety, it is still difficult to align uniform cannabis testing standards with existing food safety standards while cannabis is a Schedule I substance.

The stark differences in safety measures and quality controls were first obvious to me when I moved from the food and beverage industry into the cannabis industry. For five years, I operated an organic, cold-pressed juice company and a natural beverage distribution company and had to adhere to very strict HACCP guidelines. When a friend asked me for advice on how to get rid of mold on cannabis flower, a light bulb went off: Why was there no kill step in cannabis? And what other food safety procedures were not being followed?

What to know more about all things quality, regulatory and compliance in the cannabis industry? Check out Cannabis Industry Journal and sign up for the weekly newsletterThe current patchwork of regulations and lack of food safety standards could have dire effects. It not only puts consumer health in jeopardy, but without healthy crops, growers, dispensaries and the entire cannabis supply chain can suffer. When a batch of cannabis fails microbial testing, it cannot be sold as raw flower unless it goes through an approved process to eliminate the contamination. This has severe impacts on everyone, starting with the cultivator. There are delays in harvesting and delivery, and sometimes producers are forced to extract their flower into concentrates, which really cuts into profits. And in the worst cases, entire crop harvests may have to be destroyed.

So, what do cannabis cultivators and manufacturers have to fear the most? Mold. Out of all the pathogens, mold is the most problematic for cannabis crops, perhaps because it is so resilient. Mold can withstand extreme heat, leaving many decontamination treatments ineffective. And most importantly, mold can proliferate and continue to grow. This is commonplace when the cannabis is stored for any length of time. Inhaling mold spores can have serious adverse health effects, including respiratory illness, and can even be deadly for immunocompromised consumers using it for medical reasons.

What the industry needs is a true kill step. It’s the only way to kill mold spores and other pathogens to ensure that they will not continue to grow while being stored. States that mandate microbial testing will benefit from the kill step because more cultivators will be in compliance earlier in the process. In states that don’t require comprehensive microbial testing, like Washington and Oregon, the kill step is a critical way to provide consumers with a preemptive layer of protection. Microbial testing and preventative decontamination measures encourage customer brand loyalty and prevents negative press coverage.

Adopting a HACCP system would also build additional safeguards into the system. These procedures provide businesses with a step-by-step system that controls food safety, from ingredients right through to production, storage and distribution, to sale of the product and service for the final consumer. The process of creating HACCP-based procedures provides a roadmap for food safety management that ultimately aligns your staff around the goal of keeping consumers safe.

It’s high time for the cannabis industry to adopt FDA-like standards and proactively promote safety measures. Cannabis growers must implement these quality controls to ensure that their products are as safe to consume as any other food or drink on the market. Let’s be proactive and show our consumers that we are serious about their safety.

Craig Powell, Natura Life ≠ Science
FST Soapbox

Standardization of the Cannabis Supply Chain Drives Product Safety and Consumer Trust

By Craig Powell
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Craig Powell, Natura Life ≠ Science

When it comes to mainstream consumer food brands, customers expect to receive the same product each time they buy it. That consistency brings consumers back to the same brands over and over again. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about products sold in the cannabis industry. Consumers aren’t building long-term relationships with brands because consumers don’t have consistent product experiences and often take their business to other brands.

This inconsistency plaguing the cannabis industry can be attributed to an unreliable supply chain, which plays out in multiple ways.

First, cannabis companies are having difficulty meeting state regulations. This happens because the legal cannabis industry is still relatively young and there isn’t a substantial institutional knowledge about regulatory compliance, nor are there any standardized best practices in place. Regulation is expensive and requires human and financial capital that most cannabis companies don’t have in place. Complicating things further, regulations keep changing, making it more difficult for compliant businesses to keep up, even when they have the best intentions.

Second, testing of cannabis products has been complicated. Because cannabis isn’t federally legal, standardized testing guidelines have not been developed, leaving individual states in charge of dictating their own requirements and enforcement framework. There have been numerous reports in the past few years of labs in California either improperly reporting testing results, or worse, submitting fraudulent results.

Third, problems also arise on production end of the supply chain—not only with consistency, but also with consumer safety. According to an estimate from New Frontier Data, approximately 80% of sales are still conducted through the black market. Many growers are using banned pesticides in amounts way beyond recommended levels. In addition, as the recent vape issue has demonstrated, black market manufactured products are being adulterated with toxic substances that pose significant health hazards to consumers.

Given these consistency challenges, the standardization of the supply chain—especially compliance, testing and safety measures—should be a top priority for new cannabis brands. Luckily, many best practices and standardized procedures can be adopted from the food, agriculture and pharmaceutical industries, where companies have successfully developed protocols to ensure safe and reliable products.

In addition to standardization and best practices, cannabis companies should also utilize the following recent innovations in transaction technology to provide peace-of-mind to both new brands and consumers that cannabis products are tested and safe.

Modernized Retail POS systems. Common in other consumer packaged goods industries, such as food, wine, beverages and soft drinks, RFID tags can be used throughout the supply chain to track products from seed to sale. These tags, like the “chips” on credit cards, hold electronically stored information about a product that can be accessed to verify compliance and safety.

QR Codes. While QR codes are mostly used today as marketing gimmicks, they actually have potential to provide true value for curious customers. Batch-specific QR codes could be applied to cannabis products to show detailed information about when and where it was made, what strains of cannabis were used, and testing results. This technology could be used to increase transparency between companies and to consumers.

Data Informatics. A strong information technology infrastructure can be put in place to collect and store inventory and customer data. That data can then be run through algorithms, AI and machine learning systems to help cannabis brands make better decisions about how to optimize the production of their products and how to achieve better results on future batches.

Video Surveillance. Granted, this is a more ‘low-tech’ approach, but effective, nonetheless. Video cameras can go way beyond security purposes. Footage can be viewed and compared to collected data sets to gain a deeper understanding of product flows, personnel movement and logistics that might impact a company’s final product. Video can also be analyzed automatically using AI to provide important insight to help a company fine tune their business strategies.

Consumers want to know that the cannabis products they purchase are safe, compliant and tested. Consumers also have a right to know what they are buying and expect product consistency over time from companies they trust. Ensuring supply chain consistency is key to making this happen as the industry matures. An experienced and trusted supply chain partner can help companies across different cannabis sectors, ranging from medical to food, and ensure product safety and consumer trust today through standardization and consistency. Ultimately, cannabis businesses want to cultivate a culture of excitement, not fear or uncertainty, to help the market flourish and bring quality products to our customers.

Aaron Riley, CannaSafe
In the Food Lab

How To Ensure Cannabis and CBD Edibles And Beverages Are Safe

By Aaron Riley
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Aaron Riley, CannaSafe

As cannabis and CBD edibles and beverages gain in popularity among consumers, the rush to cash-in on market opportunities has resulted in an influx of unregulated and untested products. Recently the FDA increased its scrutiny of cannabis and CBD company websites and social media accounts to make sure they were not making unverified or misleading marketing statements about their products.

To exacerbate the problem of unregulated products, recent scares around vape-related hospitalizations have flooded the news, and the public is looking to the cannabis industry for answers about what it will do to ensure CBD and cannabis products are safe for consumption.

The first step the cannabis business community can take is educating the public on the two types of edibles— tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is heavily regulated. Every batch must be tested before it is released to retail ensuring labeling and dosages are consistent.

Since CBD does not have psychoactive properties, most products do not go through the same testing standards and are far less regulated. An estimated 75% of CBD-only companies do not test their products. Even worse, independent testing has shown that CBD labels are often incorrect or inconsistent with its dosage and ingredient labels.

Both cannabis and CBD companies must advocate for a more regulated and legitimate market. Stricter regulations and testing standards will eventually weed out the bad players who are hoping to make a quick buck from those that intend to manufacture quality products that can benefit the health of consumers.

Short Cuts To Boost Profits

The current vape pen crisis underscores the lack of regulation and inconsistency in the CBD market. CBD-exclusive vapes are more likely to use cutting agents, whereas licensed THC vape companies are more likely to use pure cannabis oils and are required to undergo quality control testing.

Using cutting agents may lower operating costs, but often results in an inferior or dangerous product. Cutting agents also inhibit crystallization in CBD oils and increase the shelf life of a product. The cost of production for pure THC or CBD oil is $5–6 per gram, but a cutting agent can reduce the cost down to $0.10–$2 per gram.

With edibles, untested CBD products can introduce Salmonella or E.coli into the supply chain. This oversight could severely hurt the reputation of growers and manufacturers if a serious outbreak occurred.

Learn more about important regulatory & quality issues in the cannabis space from Cannabis Industry JournalThe Solution Is in Testing

Unlike food manufacturing, where quality controls are in place at the plant, the quality measures for edibles happens in a lab, after a product is manufactured.

Labs test edibles for potency. Both THC and CBD are used for medicinal purposes, and potency testing is critical for accurate dosing. A patient under or over dosing, or taking a poor quality CBD product with additives could detrimentally affect their long-term health.

They will also test for product contamination. Both CBD and THC cannabis can become contaminated with microbes (i.e., mold, mildew, bacteria and yeast), pesticides and heavy metals throughout the process of growing, cultivation and processing. Contamination is especially concerning because many medical marijuana patients are immunosuppressed and cannot fight off potentially dangerous infections and illnesses arising from these contaminants.

But even for the general population, cannabis and CBD contamination can cause serious health issues. Molds and bacteria such as aspergillus, Salmonella and E. coli present safety risks, and toxicity from sustained exposure to heavy metals can lead to high blood pressure, heart issues and kidney failure, among other issues. Fortunately for consumers, cannabis products sold in licensed dispensaries must all undergo contamination and quality control testing per state regulations.

However, because quality control measures are not required for edible manufacturers, there is no oversight that food-grade ingredients are used or that practices to avoid cross-contamination are used.

What Companies Can Do To Win Back Trust

Customers around the country are rightfully concerned about the safety and quality of their cannabis and CBD products in light of recent news surrounding vape-related illnesses. This is the perfect opportunity for manufacturers and consumer brands to seize on the subject and educate consumers about cannabinoids so they aren’t turned off from incorporating CBD into their lifestyles.

  1. First and foremost, test all products. At a minimum, companies should be adhering to state cannabis market regulations, even if they are just producing CBD. As the FDA rolls out more concrete regulations for CBD, which was only federally legalized last year, it is in the best interest of all CBD companies to meet FDA guidelines preemptively so products can pass inspection at a later date.
  2. Find a good credible lab to help with formulations and inputs. With edibles and beverages, there is more room to introduce contaminants within that scope.
  3. Hire food safety experts to help elevate safety standards and meet FDA regulations. Some forward-thinking companies are starting to hire quality experts from food manufacturing to get ready for broader federal acceptance.
  4. Help educate consumers on why the brand is better, based on inputs and testing.

Consumers should also conduct their own research regarding individual CBD companies’ supply chains and manufacturing standards. Transparent companies will do this proactively, providing cultivation information and lab results for their customers.

In the end, the safest place to buy cannabis and CBD products is a licensed dispensary. It is the responsibility of growers, distributors, manufacturers and retailers to keep the legal market safe and free from contaminants that could threaten the industry. The regulated cannabis space has advanced significantly in the past few years, and companies must set the highest manufacturing standards to maintain this forward momentum. Education and testing are the best solutions to ensure a safe and trusted cannabis marketplace.

Tim Birmingham, Almond Board of California
In the Food Lab

10 Years, 0 Salmonella Outbreaks

By Tim Birmingham
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Tim Birmingham, Almond Board of California

Almond Board of California (ABC) tackled food safety head-on in the wake of emerging Salmonella concerns in the early 2000s. Conventional wisdom of the time suggested that low-moisture foods like almonds presented a minimal threat, but rather than simply accepting this, ABC engaged in research to better understand the risks. The resulting best practices and groundbreaking mandatory pasteurization program developed by ABC remain the gold standard for other sectors—and drive continued food safety and quality efforts for California Almonds.

In 2017, ABC marked the 10-year anniversary of its mandatory almond pasteurization program – and, most importantly, 10 years free of Salmonella recalls and outbreaks attributed to California Almonds. The almond industry is proud of its unified efforts over the last decade, as well as the food safety record we’ve been able to achieve. However, the work to protect and improve food safety and quality continues. Looking back at our initiatives and successes reminds us of how important this work is and drives our exploration of what’s next.

Understanding and Addressing the Risk

Outbreaks of Salmonella in 2001 and 2004 raised questions and concerns about food safety and quality across industries. For California Almonds, one of the biggest challenges was determining the true level of risk. The easy answer seemed to be that risk should be low, that, based on accepted conventions of the time, pathogens should not be able to grow in almonds and other low-moisture foods. However, ABC investigated further and quickly realized that the pathogen could present a problem. The organization decided to take action and tackle Salmonella and other potential threats.

In collaboration with food safety experts and research partners, ABC began research in 2001 to better understand the prevalence and concentration of contamination in almonds, conducted in tandem with efforts to develop strategies for contamination control. ABC was able to gather enough survey data over the course of several years to show that Salmonella was indeed present in about 1% of the almonds tested at very low concentrations. This data was fed into ABC’s risk assessment work, which enabled identification of appropriate performance criteria for ensuring consumer safety (>4-log reduction).

At the same time, ABC also worked to identify effective processing technologies and the best means of validating them. A technical expert review panel was assembled to help ABC develop a plan, assess research needs, establish standards and create guidelines for the industry. Extensive work went into determining how to validate equipment, including the determination of an appropriate surrogate (non-pathogenic microorganisms) that could be used in lieu of Salmonella in the plant. Concurrently, researchers worked to determine the specific time and temperature combinations needed for a >4-log (and 5-log) reduction for a range of pasteurization processes, including oil roasting, blanching and dry roasting, some steam processes and PPO processing. ABC and partners invested significant time and effort into this research, which culminated in the development of the groundbreaking mandatory pasteurization program for Salmonella reduction, and validation guidelines.

Process Implementation and Ongoing Education

Voluntary compliance with the pasteurization program began in 2004, well in advance of September 2007, when it became mandatory. By that time, pasteurization was established as the industry norm and laying the groundwork for ongoing food quality and safety efforts. Today, ABC has more than 1 billion pounds of validated pasteurization capacity for processes that maintain the raw characteristics of almonds, including steam, moist heat and propylene oxide (PPO). It also has close to 1 billion pounds of validated capacity for processes such as dry roasting, oil roasting and blanching. All reduce the level of potential contamination in almonds without diminishing the product’s quality, nutritional value or sensory qualities (taste and crunch).

ABC also developed a comprehensive round of updates to recommended food safety practices, creating a powerful program with tools that help growers and processors achieve their desired results. These tools include Good Agricultural Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, HACCP guidelines and Pathogen Environmental Monitoring resources.

In total, ABC has made a $5 million investment in food quality and safety research and validated more than 200 treatment processes, to date. It remains committed to this mission, maintaining close connections with the scientific and regulatory communities to stay current on food safety in the broader context as well as issues specific to California Almonds. All relevant insights and information are disseminated to growers and processors in the form of clear, practical resources, including print publications and digital communications, and workshops and one-on-one field trainings.

What’s Next: Research, Tech and Regulatory Practices

The mandatory pasteurization program is now well established, but it isn’t static – ABC continues to stay on top of the latest methods, regulations and needs impacting California Almonds. Industry investment continues to increase, particularly in processes that maintain the raw characteristics of the product. And, while much information regarding processes and technologies are company-specific and confidential, equipment manufacturers continue evolving and growing their offerings, with a particular focus on maximizing almond quality and throughput.

On the regulatory side, FSMA continues to roll out for growers and processors. ABC helps growers and other stakeholders understand which rules apply, what actions to take to ensure compliance and when specific requirements come into effect for different operations, with FSMA-related resources, Preventative Controls and Produce Safety trainings and timely information available online. Many processors and non-farm huller/shellers started 2018 already meeting FSMA Preventive Control requirements, but the number of impacted orchards and huller/shellers expanded in January as the Produce Safety rule came into effect. At this point, the almond industry and the larger community of food and beverage industries have had time to assess the impact on their stakeholders and take action to ensure FSMA compliance.

FSMA reflects the evolving role of FDA in ensuring food safety. Traditionally, FDA has taken a reactive approach to food safety. The agency now has the authority to investigate farms and facilities regularly to ensure food safety regulations are followed. For the first time, growers and huller/shellers falling under the farm definition may be audited by FDA or FDA-designated agencies. While some growers may choose the exemption option, ABC encourages almond growers to understand the rule’s requirements and develop food safety plans appropriate to their farms. It will be new and uncertain territory for some, but with the FDA’s proactive approach, staying ahead of the curve on food safety and quality will be beneficial.

Currently, almonds are the only tree nut with a mandatory pasteurization program and defined performance criteria accepted by FDA. They have paved the way for validation of other tree nuts, and those industries should also consider implementing appropriate preventive controls for Salmonella. ABC’s work can be considered a road map for other nuts and low-moisture foods, but what works for almonds will not always work for other foods. Research specific to each type of nut needs to be conducted to uncover pathogen prevalence and concentration, as well as pathogen/surrogate resistance to various processes. We will continue to be proactive, as well, evaluating current practices and engaging in research to improve how we understand and control microbial contamination in almonds.

Even with a track record to take pride in, the responsibility and work of food quality and safety never end. We will continue to update and evolve programs, not only as a function of compliance, but to protect the almond customers who support us every day.

New Dipstick for Rapid Detection of Salmonella on the Farm

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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A new rapid assay may help growers make faster and more informed decisions right on the farm. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Cornell University are developing a test that addresses the challenge of sampling produce and assessing risk in a timely manner. The dipstick would enable rapid detection of Salmonella in agricultural samples in about three hours.

How It Works

“Users simply place a leaf sample in a small plastic bag that contains enzymes and incubate it for about 1.5 hours. Users would then squeeze a small liquid sample through a filter and place it in a tube with bacteriophages—viruses that are harmless to humans but infect specific bacterium, such as Salmonella or E. coli. Some phages are so specific they will only infect one bacterium serotype while others will infect a broader range of serotypes within an individual species. Phages also will only infect and replicate in viable bacteria, ensuring that non-viable organisms are not detected. This distinction is useful if prior mitigation steps, such as chlorination, have already been used. The phages used in the test were engineered to insert a particular gene into the bacteria.” – Center for Produce Safety

“We have been developing dipstick assays for ultra-low detection limits,” the technical abstract, Rapid bacterial testing for on-farm sampling, states. “Our preliminary data suggests that our fluorescent dipstick will have a detection limit of Salmonella spp. cells which makes the test ideal for on-farm use and appropriate federal requirements.”

Traceability in food manufacturing, Honeywell

Traceability Not a Trend. It’s a Reality.

By Maria Fontanazza
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Traceability in food manufacturing, Honeywell

Businesses throughout the food supply chain are using a variety of traceability tools to capture critical information during the path from the field to the consumer. Traceability has always been viewed as an important capability within the supply chain, but FSMA, coupled with retailer and consumer demand, is pushing it to the highest levels yet.

Technology solutions that provide continuous identification and verification include mobile computers, scanners, RFID and mobile printers. While growers, packers, wholesalers, distribution centers and retailers involved in the fresh produce, poultry, meat, and seafood segments are using these technologies, speculation continues about adequate adoption levels.

The larger food providers are embracing track and trace technologies, while smaller business have been much slower to adopt, according to Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing at Honeywell Sensing & Productivity Solutions. “It’s going to be difficult to convince the smaller growers to invest in the technology—a lot of them see it as a cost,” he says. “What’s helping is that the retailers are starting to push back and say they are going to require their suppliers to be compliant with [traceability] mandates and if not, they won’t do business with them.”

Out in the field, companies are leveraging scanning and printing technologies, including smart printing technology (essentially a PC with printing capability). The printer hosts data capture and traceability software, providing the tasks and traceability through the software to the scanning devices. It can capture and print the food traceability label, which contains the discreet information, at the point of harvest. At the transportation level, businesses are using mobile computers to scan and capture product information that tracks down to the details from what part of a field, or even which tree in an orchard, a product has been harvested. Traceability technologies are including sensors throughout the cold chain to monitor temperature and humidity as the product is transported from point A to B. All information moves forward into the production facility and the retailer’s distribution center. Once at the retail store level, grocers will be able to pinpoint, within potentially thousands of stores, the specific batches and lots, a key capability in the instance of product issues and recalls.

Traceability is a holistic process, and the potential for its continued growth within the food industry is high. “I see it becoming more prevalent as consumers demand it, and retailers and manufacturers must adapt. I also see them moving away from paper,” says Stubbs. “We’re close; it’s almost like there’s a trickle in the dam right now, but I really believe that over the next couple years, the dam will break and most [companies] will need to adopt [traceability solutions] or they won’t be able to effectively do business with a lot of the food retailers.”

Stubbs also anticipates an increased adoption of 2-D barcodes versus 1-D linear laser barcodes, as 2-D barcodes can contain far more information. “We are at the tip of those technologies—they exist. It’s just the integration of these systems and providing the information in a format at the supplier or food manufacturer level,” he says.

How is your company implementing traceability solutions? What challenges and benefits are occurring as a result?