A Higher Calling for Food Safety Professionals

Colorado is the first state to legally sell cannabis-infused ‘edibles’ such as: candy bars, cookies, mints, drinks, brownies, pies, truffles, and gummie bears. This move is already generating millions of dollars in tax revenue with demand far exceeding supply. Regardless of which side of this debate you are on, as this market spreads to other US states (and potentially to Canadian provinces), this new industry will generate jobs for: operations managers, QC inspectors, food safety managers, food production managers, and production personnel. However, food safety has not been adequately addressed for this industry which is a cause for concern.

Since the production of cannabis-infused edibles is illegal in most jurisdictions, these businesses historically have been operated under the table. Therefore, until recently, workers experienced in the production of cannabis-infused edibles did not generally have the opportunity to gain an in depth understanding of science-based food safety. This has left a significant deficit of highly-skilled food safety expertise in this industry.

Cannabis-infused edibles are created using identical processes to other food products and thereby carry the same risks of contamination. Although mainstream food producers with established HACCP-based food safety programs and trained staff could begin producing edibles, this has not been the case in Colorado as barriers to entry exist due to legal and financial issues. As a result, health inspectors have their hands-full dealing with these establishments, and have already cited several companies for maintaining storage conditions that are ideal for the proliferation of Clostridium botulinum (the bacterium that causes botulism).

In Canada, regulatory authorities do not play a role in ensuring edibles are safe as edibles remain illegal across the country, even for licensed medicinal users. Ironically, this policy increases the likelihood of outbreaks of foodborne illness by driving manufacturers underground. However, despite the position of the current government, the writing seems to be on the wall that edibles will be manufactured legally in Canada sooner rather than later.

The US Government is also refusing to inspect or regulate edible manufacturers since marijuana and its products remain illegal under federal law. Instead, they have taken a step back and left the responsibility of regulating this industry to the states. Colorado has responded by drafting its own regulations and enforcement standards. In March, they introduced the Permanent Retail Marijuana Rules that require food safety training for food handling, sanitation and personal hygiene. This new legislation also defines kitchen standards, and allows for inspections. Compliance will require the expertise of food safety professionals and the opportunities for skilled workers will expand as other jurisdictions follow suit.

So far there have not been any food borne illnesses reported that are associated with eating infused edibles; but full scale production only began in January 2014 in Colorado. Washington is not yet selling infused edibles but plans to begin production this summer. But, food safety concerns abound for these new manufacturers. Most are small, inexperienced, and often lack the food safety knowledge and resources found among mainstream manufacturers. They also do not qualify for traditional business loans. As demand far exceeds supply, corners may be cut when facing an impossible deluge of orders. Also, some operators may view food safety as an inconvenience or an annoyance rather than a critical business function. It is unlikely that investments in food safety training, program development, and HACCP software systems will be at the top of their priority lists, especially since many may not even be aware of what food safety concerns exist.

Regulatory pressure will be required to ensure the implementation of food safety programs and Colorado should be applauded for what they have accomplished so far by bringing in new regulations. However, US states rely heavily on federal resources and inspectors. Requiring states to be solely responsible for the oversight of this new industry may just prove to be a recipe for disaster. At a minimum, an army of skilled professionals is going to be required to serve as state inspectors.

No one ever wants to see a major outbreak of a pathogen like Clostridium botulinum but the need to avoid such an eventuality is made more acute in view of the devastating effect it could have on this emerging industry. Manufacturers are seeking to establish themselves as reputable businesses, politicians have gambled their careers on legalization, and consumers are enjoying the freedom and new choices offered by this initiative. A major outbreak of foodborne disease could cause similar initiatives to be slowed or even stopped in other jurisdictions that are considering legalization, causing all of these new industry jobs to disappear in a puff of smoke!

Image Credit: Huffington Post

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