Challenges of Food Safety in the Cannabis Edibles Marketplace

By: Lauren Solar

Cannabis edibles is one of the fastest growing sectors of the food industry, with sales on track to register a compound annual growth rate of more than 25 per cent between 2018 and 2022. Almost gone are the days of the college kid, illicitly whipping up a batch of pot brownies for the amusement of their friends. Although some small producers remain active, edibles are mainstream; they are produced at a commercial scale, in large batches and involve some of the biggest players in the market, rumoured soon to include Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch.

Producing cannabis edibles is a complex process, combining food production with a pharmaceutical that requires an accurate dosage. Cannabis contains a wide range of chemicals which may contribute to their psychoactive properties (their effects, individually and in combination, haven’t all been studied yet). The two most common are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The commercial development of this new sector has been plagued with reports of dosage inaccuracies and inconsistent products. We’re going to look at some examples of the variables edibles manufacturers face to demonstrate the issues.

Not all Cannabis is Created Equally

The problems begin with the different marijuana plant varietals, as each cultivar varies in potency. In the early years of edibles, the most common extraction method was to soak the cannabis flowers in oil, creating an infusion. “Each kind of cannabis plant will produce oil that has a different potency level,” says Kim Stuck, founder and CEO of Allay Consulting LLC, a compliance strategy and services provider serving the hemp and cannabis industries, headquartered in Denver. “No matter what, that oil needs to be tested right before using in any food product, to know what level the potency is at.” Which means that companies can’t take for granted that adding the same amount of oil will result in the same amount of THC or CBD in each product.

And although many companies stick with the same cultivars, the potency is not always consistent. “Even from harvest batch to harvest batch, the potency of the oil they are producing can be very different,” Stuck says. “Most companies these days are using a distillate, which is oil derived from a CO2, butane or ethanol extraction,” she explains. The results are more consistent, but testing each batch is still important.

Not all Extraction Methods are Created Equally

Different extraction methods can also contribute to product inconsistencies. Tests show that because of the inherent inconsistency of fat distribution within a food product, the dosage can vary between one square of chocolate or one cookie and the next. For example, a consumer,

trying to manage their THC or CBD consumption, could potentially eat one square of a chocolate bar and feel nothing because they happened to choose a square that contained next to no THC or CBD. They would then eat a second square which may have most of the active chemical the entire chocolate bar is supposed to contain, thus consuming far more than they intended or wanted.

“Regulations in various states allow for this [inconsistency],” says Kathy Knutson, Ph.D., an independent contractor and author of Food Safety Lessons for Cannabis-Infused Edibles, “and there are tolerance levels. It can vary from state to state and country to country. For most producers, the labelling is two steps. There is the package labelling, which includes the pre-printed information, graphics and ingredients and such, but then almost every edible that is purchased will have an add-on sticker which contains the specific [potency] information for that batch.” The edibles are held until the laboratory testing can be completed, which is why most are manufactured as a shelf-stable food such as gummies or chocolate bars for their delivery.

Not All Testing Labs are Created Equally

However, it appears that some dosage discrepancies arise from testing. Paraphrasing an article in the Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, the authors discuss differences in results based on the type of mass spectrometry used. Some chemicals are present at such high levels they can mask other chemicals unless the correct spectrometry methods are used. Sample preparation is another issue because heat can change the chemical signature of cannabis. Finally, the authors point to a lack of standardization of testing and sample extraction methods from one laboratory to another. “We are at a very early stage of the future cannabis industry… There is an urgent need for accurate and precise chemical analysis of large sample numbers ranging from cannabis plant materials to final products including medicinal products, foods, and biological fluids.”

Lack of Regulation

“This is something the cannabis industry has been shouting from the rooftops about since the beginning,” Stuck points out. “There isn’t a lot of regulation around the testing labs. Most regulatory bodies are aware of this but it’s very frustrating for the cannabis industry.” Unscrupulous manufacturers can practice something the industry calls ‘lab shopping’; they pick the lab whose results best fit the company’s requirements; she explains. Some standardization of labs, their equipment and their best testing practices needs to be developed.

Cannabis edibles have come a very long way in a very short time. But there is still a ways to go as this complex slice of the food industry continues to grow in colossal leaps and bounds. Combining the normal food safety concerns with dosage and testing variations will remain a difficult balance for years to come.

About the Author:

Lauren Solar has been a freelance writer and editor for over thirty years, writing mostly on health-related topics and for not-for-profit organizations. Because of her own food allergies and her extensive background with allergy advocacy groups, she helped create the Food Allergen Food Safety Training offered by TrainCan and is a certified trainer on this topic. She has also done a great deal of technical and business writing.

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