[Canniseur: Who would have thought that the rubber gloves I’ve seen many people at dispensaries wear while weighing out bud could contaminate our purchase? At the production level of the cannabis industry, I’ve seen lots of photographs of people trimming plants wearing disposable gloves. The story below was shocking, not just for the cannabis industry, but for any industry where people need to wear disposable gloves. If the companies that made disposable gloves were ethical, this wouldn’t be a problem. It is a problem that has a strong case to be examined.]
Today in the states where medical and recreational cannabis is legal, cannabis products purchased from licensed facilities are required to have undergone testing by accredited labs. The compliance testing verifies advertised potency levels and checks for microbial contamination, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and the presence of mold and mildew, among other potential contaminants.
Until recently, little attention has been given to disposable gloves and their possible involvement in the contamination of the products they handle. What factors should you consider when purchasing gloves?
Disposable Gloves Facts
Disposable gloves, like cannabis products, are not made of equal quality. There are several different types of disposable gloves on the market, and huge variations in glove quality and chemical compositions exist between and within each glove type.
Recent scientific studies have revealed how gloves produced in factories with poor manufacturing standards and raw material ingredients can contaminate the products they handle. High-level toxins in disposable gloves were found to affect lab results, toxins in gloves contaminated the food they touched, and pathogen contamination of unused disposable gloves has been proven. Should the cannabis industry take more interest in the disposable gloves they are using? With so much at stake if compliance test results are compromised, we think so!
Glove Procurement: Factors to Consider
What factors should you consider when purchasing gloves?
Industrial grade gloves- There is no such thing as an industrial grade glove certification, although it does give an incorrect impression that gloves are strong and resilient. Industrial grade means they have not been subjected to inspection nor have passed any specific testing requirements.
Food contact gloves are certified under FDA Title 21 CFR Part 177, which states the components of the glove comply with the FDA regulations and the gloves consist of “substances generally recognized as safe for use in food or food packaging.” Few controls exist for glove manufacturing relating to the reliability of raw materials and manufacturing processes, and costs can be reduced with the use of cheap, toxic materials.
Medical grade gloves have to pass a series of technical tests in order to meet the safety requirements specified by the FDA. Gloves are tested for puncture and abrasion resistance, must meet tension and elongation tests and are also tested for chemical substance resistance. Manufacturers of these gloves must receive 510k certification. As this study shows, even medical gloves can contain high levels of toxic ingredients, affecting laboratory test results.
The Acceptable Quality Level (AQL) refers to a quality standard for measuring pinhole defects- the lower the AQL, the less defects the gloves have. There are no AQL requirements for food grade or industrial grade gloves, meaning there are no guidelines for the number of failures per box. Medical grade gloves must have an AQL of 2.5 or less, meaning 2.5 failed gloves per 100 gloves is an acceptable level.
For Californian cannabis companies, are your disposable gloves Prop. 65 compliant? Accelerator chemicals, such as 2-Mercaptobenzothiazole (MBT) found in some nitrile gloves, have recently been added to the Prop. 65 chemicals known to cause cancer.
How Gloves Can Contaminate Products
Physical, chemical and microbiological hazards have been identified in disposable glove supply chains. Gloves of any grade are not tested for cleanliness (microbial and bioburden levels), raw material toxicity and chemical composition, or pathogen contamination.
100% of glove factories supplying the United States are based in Southeast Asia. These factories are generally self-regulated, with FDA compliance required for a rough outline of the ingredients of the gloves rather than the final product. Few controls are required for glove manufacturing relating to the reliability of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance or conditions. A clear opportunity exists for accidental or intentional contamination within the glove-making process, especially to reduce costs.
In order to safeguard their customers from product contamination, a selection of tests and certifications, some of which are unique within the glove industry, are being implemented by glove supplier Eagle Protect. These tests make sure Eagle’s gloves coming into the United States are made in clean, well run factories, free of any type of contamination and are consistent in material makeup to original food safe specifications. This glove Fingerprint testing program, consists of a number of proprietary risk reduction steps and targeted third-party testing methods, includes gas chromatography combined with mass spectroscopy (GC/MS); surface free energy determination; in vitro cytotoxicity analysis; and microbial viability-linked metagenomic analysis.
With a great deal of faith placed on a glove supplier’s ability to deliver disposable gloves sight unseen, we believe these tests are essential to further reduce risks or pathogen contamination associated with them, keeping your cannabis products safe.
[Canniseur: This is the big picture view of international cannabis sales. The big cannabis businesses that enter the International market are being held accountable within the new MRAs.]
New international trade agreements on pharmaceutical quality and inspection are a big driver for the map of the modern cannabis industry globally.
If you have wondered over the past several years, why the big Canadian companies (in particular) are following the global strategy they are, there is actually a fairly simple answer: Newly implementing trade agreements, particularly between Europe and North America.
In fact, look at the schedule of the MRA agreements signed between the U.S. and individual EU countries over the last several years, and it also looks like a map of the countries that have not only legalized at least medical cannabis, but where the big Canadian companies (in particular) have begun to establish operations outside of their home country.
But what is going on is actually more than just CETA-related and also will affect cannabis firms south of the Canadian-U.S. border.
All of these swirling currents are also why the most recent MRA to come into full force in July this year, between the U.S. and Europe, is so interesting from the cannabis perspective. Even before federal reform in the U.S. If this sounds like a confusing disconnect, read on.
What Are MRAs?
MRAs are actually a form of highly specialized trade agreement that allow trading countries to be certain that the pharmaceuticals they purchase from abroad are equivalent to what is produced at home. This includes not only ingredients but processing procedures, production plant hygiene, testing, labeling and more.
When it comes to the EU-US MRA agreement, this means that individual states of the EU can now recognize the American Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) as an effective federal regulator of American pharmaceutical production that is equal to the procedures in Europe. US GMP standards, in other words, will be recognized as equal to those of EU states.
This will now also, by definition, include GMP-certified medical cannabis formulations.
What is so intriguing, however, is how this development will actually place certain American (and Canadian) manufacturers in a first place position to import cannabis into Europe ahead of the rest of the American cannabis industry.
What Are Mutual Recognition Agreements All About?
One of the most important quality and consumer safety aspects of establishing a clean supply chain is tied up in the concept of GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices). These are procedures, established by compliant producers of pharmaceuticals, to ensure seed (or source) to sale reliability of the medication they make. In the cannabis industry, particularly in the advent of Canadian-European transatlantic trade in cannabis, this has been the first high hurdle to accept and integrate on the Canadian side.
If European countries recognize a country’s GMP certifications are equivalent to its own, in other words, and cannabis is legal for export, a country can enter the international cannabis market without facing bans, in-country inspections and the like. In the interim, imported products still have to be batch tested until the agreements are fully accepted and operational.
Israel, for example, already had an MRA with the EU, and medical cannabis is legal in the country. However, Israel was prevented from selling cannabis abroad until a legislative change domestically, passed on Christmas Day.
That is why the MRA agreement between the US and EU with Canadian companies in the middle also put both Israeli and U.S. firms at an extreme disadvantage in comparison. Both in entering the market in the first place, and of course associated discussions, like the German tender bid. That is now changing- and as of this year.
A Specialized Map Of Global Medical Cannabis Exporters
Ironically, what the new US-EU MRA could also well do is create a channel for pharmaceutical cannabis from the United States to Europe (certainly on the hemp and CBD front) just as Israel is expected to enter the international cannabis export industry (later this summer or fall). It could well be also, particularly given the Trump Administration’s tendency to want to not only “put America first” if not pull off “a better deal” in general and about everything, that this is why President Trump offered the delay to Israel’s president Benjamin Netanyahu in the first place.
Regardless of the international individual developments and subtleties however, what is very clear that from the time the first bid stalled in Germany in the summer of 2017 until now, the U.S.-EU MRA has been in the room even if not named specifically as a driver.
For example, the FDA confirmed the capability of Poland and Slovenia to carry out GMP inspections in February of 2019. It was only last fall that Aurora pulled off its licensing news in the former (on the same day licensing reform was announced by the government). Denmark was recognized in November of last year during the first year of its “medical cannabis pilot progam.” Greece was recognized in March 2018. Italy, Malta, Spain and the UK came online in November of 2017.
Overlay this timetable with a map of cannabis reform (and beyond that, cannabis production) and the logic starts to look very clear.
The upshot, in other words, is that while cannabis still may be “stigmatized” if not still “illegal” in many parts of the world, more generalized, newly negotiated and implementing, specialized global trade agreements between the US, Europe and Canada in particular have been driving the development of certain segments of the cannabis industry globally and since about 2013.
The Biggest News?
As of this year, as a result, expect at least from the GMP-certified front at least, that such international trade will also include medical cannabis from the U.S.
Ed. Note: Many pharmaceutical companies are ethical. This one is apparently not. A CBD based drug selling for over $30K/year? We’re appalled by the lack of integrity of GW Pharmaceuticals. And their lack of ethics. Epidiolex is essentially CBD and that can be had for about $150/year. Or less. Cannabis is the answer. And the pharmas can’t get their brains around that, it would appear. And it’s far less expensive. In fact, it’s almost cheap. At $18/gram or so for cannabis of almost any type, it’s a bargain. It’s hard to consume a gram in a week and the idea of $32,000/year for weed is absurd unless you’re smoking from dawn to dawn and even then… You need to read this to understand the depravity of GW Pharmaceuticals.
The majority of this cost will not be picked up by private health insurers but rather the federal governmentActually, according to industry analysis, this is about 70% more than the price of one comparable drug (Onfi), and slightly more expensive than Banzel, the two competing (non-cannabinoid based) medications now available in the U.S. for this market.
Here is the other (widely unreported) kicker. The majority of this cost will not be picked up by private health insurers but rather the federal government, which is also not negotiating with GW Pharma about that high price (unlike for example what is going on in Europe and the German bid).
Why the difference?
Two reasons. The first is that Epidiolex has obtained “orphan drug” status (a medication for a disease that affects fewer than 200,000 patients in the U.S.) The second is that the majority of the insurance that will be picking up this tab is Medicaid. The patient pool will be unable to afford this. As a result, the bulk of the money will remit not from private insurance companies but rather federal taxpayers. And, unlike in say, Germany, none of this is pre-negotiated in bulk.
Co-payments are expected to range from $5 to $200 per month per patient after insurance (read: the government) picks up the tab. This essentially means that the company plans to base participation at first at least on a sliding scale, highly subsidized by a government that has yet to reschedule cannabis from a Schedule I in the U.S.
Creating, in other words, a new monopoly position for GW Pharmaceuticals in North America.
A Hypocrisy Both Patients And The Industry Should Fight
The sordid, underhanded politicking that has created this canna monster is hardly surprising given the current political environment in both the U.S. and the U.K. right now. The people who benefit the most from this development are not patients, or even everyday shareholders, not to mention the burgeoning legitimate North American cannabis industry, but in fact highly placed politicians (like British Prime Minister Theresa May). Philip May, the PM’s husband’s firm is the majority shareholder in GW Pharma. Her former drugs minister (with a strong stand against medical cannabis) is married to the managing director of British Sugar, the company that grows GW Pharma’s cannabis stock domestically.
So far, despite a domestic outcry over this in the UK (including rescheduling), there has been no political backlash in the United States over this announcement. Why not?
Look To Europe For A More Competitive Medical Market
This kind of pricing strategy is also a complete no go in just about every other market – including medical-only markets where GW Pharma already has a footprint.
For example, German health insurers are already complaining about this kind of pricing strategy for cannabis (see the Cannabis Report from one of the country’s largest insurers TK – out earlier this year). And this in an environment where the government, in fact, does negotiate a bulk rate for most of the drugs in the market. Currently most German cannabis patients are being given dronabinol, a synthetic form of THC which costs far less.
On top of this, there are also moves afoot by the German government to begin to bring the costs of medical cannabis and medicines down, dramatically. And this too will impact the market – not only in Europe, but hopefully spark a debate in every country where prices are also too high.
The currently pending German cultivation bid for medical cannabis has already set an informal “reference” price of at most 7 euros a gram (and probably will see bid competitors come in at under half that). In other words, the government wholesale price of raw, unprocessed cannabis flower if not lightly processed cannabis oil is expected to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3-4 euros per gram come early next year. If not, as some expect, potentially even lower than that.
Processed Cannabis Medicine vs. Whole Plant Treatment
The debate that is really raging, beyond pricing, is whether unprocessed cannabis and cannabis oil is actually “medicine.” At the moment, the status quo in the U.S. is that it is not.
GW Pharmaceuticals, in other words, a British company importing a CBD-based derivative, is the only real “medical cannabis” company in the country, per the FDA. Everyone else, at least according to this logic, is placed in the “recreational camp.” And further, hampered still, with a lack of rescheduling, that affects everyone.
If that is not an organizing issue for the American cannabis industry, still struggling with the many issues inherent in the status quo (from insurance coverage and banking to national distribution across state lines) leading up to the midterms, nothing will be.
Ed. Note: This is not surprising at all. We’ll see more of this as the market begins to move to a normalized situation.
Just weeks ago, the first voluntary cannabis product recall occurred under California’s new regulations. According to an article on MJBizDaily.com by John Schroyer, the recall for their vaporizer cartridges affects almost 100 dispensaries in California.
Bloom Brands, the company issuing the voluntary recall, mentioned in a press release that batches sold between July 1-19, 2018 were contaminated with the pesticide Myclobutanil and therefore does not meet the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) standards. Below is an excerpt from the press release:
We are working closely with the BCC to remedy this issue and expect clean, compliant products to be back on shelves in three weeks…. At Bloom, we are continuing to work with the BCC and other partners to ensure that the space is properly regulated and safe for all customers. Transparency and safety remain our top concerns and we will provide updates as additional information becomes available. We apologize for any concern or inconvenience this serious misstep has caused. We thank you for your continued trust and confidence in our products.
Then, just days later, Lowell Herb Co. issued a voluntary recall on their pre-rolls. First reported by MJBizDaily.com, it appears the products initially passed multiple lab tests and was cleared for retail sales. Weeks after the batch passed tests, a laboratory reversed its decision, saying the products failed to pass the state’s testing standards. The contaminant in question was not mentioned.
Many seem to think these recalls are a product of the BCC’s unrealistic expectations in their lab testing rules. In a Facebook post days ago, the California Cannabis Industry Association called out the BCC for their unworkable rules. “The BCC has set testing standards that are nearly impossible to meet,” reads the post. “As a result recalls like this will be the norm and the industry will suffer a bottleneck in supply. Testing standards need to be realistic, not impossible.”
Now that governments are legalizing cannabis around the world, the question looms for cannabis businesses seeking legitimacy in the new industry: what safety standards should apply? This question is more difficult as different jurisdictions grapple with defining and implementing legal requirements and struggle to keep up with the pace of growth.
For visionary cannabis business, it makes sense to anticipate requirements – not only from governments, but also from consumers and partners. Most regulations currently focus on security and basic health issues but, in the long-term, the industry that may offer the best model for cannabis businesses isn’t pharmaceuticals, but food. Cannabis (especially edibles) share similar hazards and traceability challenges with food products, so taking the lead from the food industry will be much more applicable and could offer greater benefits.
Companies that achieve the highest and most flexible certification will enjoy a crucial competitive advantage when it comes to winning market share, popularity and consumer trust. Let’s take a quick look at the different options of food safety (and quality) certifications that cannabis businesses may consider. But first, let’s clarify two important definitions that are necessary to understand the food industry.
Basic Concepts from the Food Industry
The first acronym you should be aware of is GFSI, the Global Food Safety Initiative. GFSI is a food industry-driven global collaboration body created to advance food safety. When it comes to understanding GFSI, the important part to note is that certifications recognized by GFSI (like SQF, FSSC 22000, and BRC) are universally accepted. Companies operating under GFSI-recognized certifications open the most doors to the most markets, providing the highest potential for growth. For this reason, cannabis companies should be aware of and seriously consider seeking GFSI certifications
Secondly, many food safety programs are built around Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP. While many people may talk about HACCP like it’s a certification in and of itself, it is not actually a certification like the others on this list, but rather a methodology that helps companies systematically identify and control biological, chemical, and physical hazards that may arise during food production, handling, and distribution. Companies that adopt this methodology end up with a HACCP plan, which must then be followed at all times to avoid and address health and safety issues. It’s often required for food businesses and is generally required in most of the world, except where ISO 22000 is more common, primarily in Europe and countries whose primary export market is European. Since HACCP plans are also incorporated into most of the other achievable certifications, developing a HACCP program early will build a strong foundation for higher levels of certification.
Certifications for the Cannabis Industry
Now that we understand the basics of GFSI and HACCP, we can see how the certifications that have been developed by and for the food industry may apply to cannabis companies – and which you should consider necessary for your business.
GMP: Good Manufacturing Practice Certification
GMP (or sometimes cGMP) certification requires that companies abide by a set of good manufacturing processes for food and beverage products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, dietary supplements and medical devices. Since it really only covers basic sanitation and employee hygiene, it is considered the lowest level of certification in the industry. It is not recognized by GFSI, but GFSI does require all the standard benchmarks of a GMP be met before granting GFSI certification.
While GMP certification is often required, it is far below the standard that should be upheld by any serious businesses. It doesn’t cover many of the different types of hazards associated with food production – that I have argued will become increasingly relevant to cannabis producers – and doesn’t provide a systematic approach to identifying and controlling hazards like a HACCP program would. It’s really just about providing the basic procedures and checks to ensure that the facility is clean and that employees aren’t contaminating the products.
Final Verdict: Recommended, but as the bare minimum. GMP is not sufficient on its own to adequately control the risk of recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks, and it limits a company’s market potential because it lacks the GFSI worldwide stamp of approval.
Some companies consider GMP certification a good place to start if you’re on a tight deadline for distribution in markets where only GMP is required by regulators. I would argue that striving for the minimum standards will be costly in the long run. Health, safety and quality standards are the foundations upon which winning companies are built. It’s critical to develop a corporate culture that will lead to GFSI-recognized programs without major organizational overhaul. Start on the right foot and set your sights higher – obtain a certification that will stand the test of time and avoid the pain and risks of trying to change entrenched behaviors.
SQF: Safe Quality Food Program Certification
SQF is my number one recommendation as the best certification for the cannabis industry. One of the most common certifications in North America, SQF is a food safety management system recognized by retailers and consumers alike. It is administered by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and, importantly, recognized by GFSI, which gives companies a huge competitive edge. SQF focuses on the whole supply chain.
SQF was also the first to develop a cannabis program and is currently the leader in this market segment. It is also the scheme that best integrates food safety with quality. Since it is recognized worldwide, SQF provides the greatest leverage to accelerate a company’s growth. Once obtained, products with SQF certification can often jump the queue to enter different regulatory markets.
Final verdict: Highly recommended. A cannabis company with an SQF certification has the greatest advantage because it offers the broadest worldwide reach and keeps companies a step ahead of competitors. It’s also achievable – just this past April, Curaleaf Florida ostensibly became the first cannabis company to achieve SQF certification. It is tough, but fair and practical.
Other Certification Standards
SQF is the top certification that should be considered by cannabis companies, especially outside of Europe. However, the food industry has several other major types of standards that, at this time, have limited relevance to the cannabis industry today. Let’s take a quick look.
When considering GFSI-recognized programs, the main choice for food companies is between SQF, which we’ve covered, and BRC (the British Retail Consortium Certification). BRC has the most in common with SQF but, while SQF was originally developed for processed foods, BRC was developed in the UK for meat products. Today, they are quite similar, but BRC doesn’t focus quite as much on the quality component as SQF does. While BRC could be a good option, they don’t have a program for cannabis and, thus far, do not appear to be as friendly toward the cannabis industry.The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages
Across the pond, there are a few other certification standards that are more common than SQF. One of these is ISO 22000, which is the certification for the food-related standard created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Europe. It is not recognized by GFSI but is the primary system used in Europe. If your market is exclusively in the EU, it might be a good choice for you in the future. However, to date, there is no indication that any cannabis company has achieved ISO 22000 certification. Some cannabis companies have attained certification for other ISO standards like ISO 9001:2015, which specifies requirements for quality control systems, and ISO/IEC 17025 for laboratory testing. These are generally more relevant for the pharmaceutical industry than food and beverage, but still apply to cannabis.
There is the perception that cannabis is more accepted in EU countries like the Netherlands, but the regulatory attitude to cannabis is complicated. In the Netherlands, for example, cannabis isn’t actually legal – “coffee shops” fall under a toleration policy that doesn’t include regulation. Medical cannabis in the Netherlands is all produced by one supplier and several countries in the EU allow for licensed distribution and import, but not domestic production. Various EU countries are trying to keep up with the legalization trend, however. The Czech Republic, Germany, and others all recently introduced legislation for domestic production of cannabis for medical use. For companies with their eye on the EU, it is crucial to watch which regulatory requirements will be implemented in each market and how.
The last certification standard to mention is the result of a compromise between ISO and the more HACCP oriented programs like SQF. FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification) tries to address the gaps between ISO 22000 and GFSI-recognized certifications by introducing another component called PAS 220. Since it is recognized by GFSI, FSSC 22000 is starting to get more traction in the food industry because it makes products a bit easier to export to the EU. FSSC 22000 satisfies the EU ISO standards but isn’t as closely tied to HACCP. We will be keeping an eye on this one.
The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages – but it’s difficult for cannabis companies to understand all the options available and how each apply to their specific products. While markets adjust beyond the preliminary issue of legality, it’s crucial for companies to look forward and comply with safety and quality standards like SQF. Companies who strive for SQF certification (or other GFSI-recognized certifications as they become available) will find themselves far better prepared to seize market share as cannabis markets blossom.