Understanding Food Safety in Cannabis Products

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cannabis infused cookies chocolate and cupcake

With the legalization of medicinal and recreational cannabis in quite a few states, edible products containing marijuana have exploded in popularity. Head to a local cannabis shop or browse online, and you’ll find everything from marijuana-infused gummies to chocolate chip cookies.

As with all other edible items, it’s important to fully understand what goes into the food safety of cannabis products. Failing to do so can mean a product recall or, even worse, a foodborne illness outbreak that sickens or kills customers. This can damage your reputation and cost you thousands in lawsuits.

To avoid such an incident, learn what you need to know about food safety in cannabis products below.

State Regulations and Concerns

As of December 2023, 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use (or both). Even states that have not legalized marijuana may allow the sale of products containing cannabidiols (CBDs). Businesses have taken advantage of this by putting CBD in everything from soap to hand lotions.

The legality of cannabis in food products depends on a particular state’s laws. Knowing whether a state classifies edibles as food or pharmaceutical products is also important. That classification will dictate the safety and inspection procedures your business must follow.

In Alaska, for instance, cannabis is classified and regulated as food. Washington and California don’t classify cannabis as food, but it is regulated in the same way as food. Nevada is an interesting outlier because the state neither classifies nor regulates cannabis as food.

Importance of Food Safety Plans

The food safety production lifecycle starts the moment a farmer plants seeds in the soil. There is a chance for contamination throughout every step, from the tending and harvesting of crops to the final packaging process.

Bacterial contamination is insidious because you can’t usually see it with the naked eye. Just because a product looks and smells fine doesn’t mean it is.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness sickens more than 48 million people annually. Of those, 128,000 people become sick enough to require hospitalization, while approximately 3,000 die.

With current technology and inspection procedures, one would think that foodborne illness would be relatively rare, but that’s not so. In 2023 alone, for instance, seven foodborne illness outbreaks have sickened people in multiple states.

You may recall the salmonella outbreak linked to a brand of diced onions in January 2023. This outbreak sickened 72 people across 22 states.

As you can see, food safety is not something to take lightly. In addition to potentially sickening many, you may have to issue a product recall, which could seriously hurt your company’s bottom line. Outbreaks also damage your company’s reputation, and once that trust is lost, it’s hard to regain it with customers.

HACCP System for Cannabis Products

scientist in laboratory testing cannabis oil extracted from marijuana

HACCP stands for “hazard analysis and critical control points.” As defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is a management system that addresses food safety by analyzing and controlling physical, chemical, and biological hazards.

HACCP outlines seven principles that help your company manage food safety in cannabis products:

  1. Perform a hazard analysis and identify preventative measures to control hazards.
  2. Identify critical control points in your manufacturing process.
  3. Establish critical limits at which you must control a hazard.
  4. Establish monitoring requirements for critical control points.
  5. Establish corrective actions to take when monitoring uncovers a deviation from established critical limits.
  6. Establish procedures to ensure the HACCP system works as intended.
  7. Establish good record-keeping procedures.

Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)

It seems as though nearly every time you turn on the news, you hear a story about a listeria or E. coli outbreak that’s sickened and possibly killed quite a few people. Often, it’s possible to trace such outbreaks back to the farm that produced those contaminated products.

Cannabis producers must follow GAPs to ensure their products are grown, handled, packed, and stored safely, thus minimizing the chance of a foodborne illness outbreak.

GAPs include things like monitoring water quality, worker hygiene, packing, storage, transportation, and fertilizer use.

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs)

factory worker checking the pressure of the machine

Good Manufacturing Practice is a system that ensures your business consistently produces cannabis products according to quality standards. Companies that produce any type of pharmaceutical product, including cannabis, must adhere to these standards. If a company fails to do so, any product it produces is considered “adulterated” under the law.

GMP regulations address the following:

  • Hygienic cleaning
  • Quality management
  • Buildings and facilities
  • Personnel
  • Raw materials
  • Equipment
  • Record keeping and documentation
  • Complaints

Safety Considerations for Extraction of Cannabinoids

To comply with state regulations, GAPs, and GMPs, your business must take certain safety precautions when extracting cannabinoids. These apply whether you extract cannabinoids for edibles, tinctures, wax concentrates, crumbles, or vape oils.

Cannabinoid extraction typically involves ethanol, propane, or butane. These are flammable solvents, and employees must handle them properly to avoid accidents and contamination of products.

C. botulinum contamination is a big concern for cannabinoid extractors. The spores of this bacterium are present in marijuana leaves and soil. If ingested, they can cause serious illness and death.

To avoid contamination, manufacturers must extract cannabinoids via a closed-loop system with an approved solvent. Irradiating plant material destroys the bacteria, and refrigerating extractions at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below prevents existing bacteria from reproducing.

Many of the standards used in food manufacturing apply to cannabinoid extractors as well. For instance, workers should comply with good hygiene practices and wear protective equipment, such as gloves and hairnets, when possible.

You may also consider purchasing a food metal detector or an X-ray machine to inspect products. Metal detectors only detect metal, whereas X-ray detectors can find other contaminants, such as glass and bones.

Cannabinoid extractors must also regularly clean their equipment and work surfaces. This can be time-consuming, but when the alternative is a foodborne illness outbreak, it’s a process your company can’t afford to skip.

CBD and Existing Food Safety Regulations

judges gavel and scale of justice on wooden table

In January 2023, the FDA announced that its existing regulatory framework for human and animal foods wasn’t appropriate for products containing CBD. The FDA also denied three petitions requesting that the agency issue a regulation allowing CBD products to be marketed as dietary supplements.

The FDA made this announcement in response to safety concerns, particularly with long-term use of CBD. To overcome current limitations, the FDA intends to work with Congress to develop a strategy for regulating CBD products.

Currently, the FDA says that products containing CBD cannot be sold as dietary supplements because of a lack of substantial drug clinical investigations. The FDA will likely eventually develop a new regulatory pathway for CBD products. Part of this pathway could include risk management tools such as:

  • Implementing a minimum purchase age to avoid accidental CBD overdoses in children
  • Limiting CBD content in products
  • Clearly labeling products
  • Preventing contaminants

Safeguard Your Customers With Our Inspection Systems

Food safety in cannabis products is extremely important, but you could end up with dangerous contaminants in your goods without the proper inspection equipment. Our FDA-compliant food metal detectors and X-ray systems can help you avoid contamination and costly product recalls.

To learn more about our inspection systems, or for answers to any other questions regarding quality control in food production, call (877) 834-6750.

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