Companies looking to establish or fine-tune the parameters required for production of cannabis-infused foods and beverages need to take a hard look at their supply chain. And while the supply chain for this industry continues to grow more sophisticated, some aspects of manufacturing cannabis-infused consumables require special consideration in order to establish a platform for ongoing success in this increasingly competitive market.
“When it comes to a producer setting up a cannabinoid ingredient supply chain, the first thing you would want to establish is that your incoming raw materials have been tested for quality and safety purposes,” says Mike Schmitt, regulatory manager, SōRSE Technology, Seattle. He notes that it’s important to ensure the ingredient supplier has a structured and comprehensive food safety plan to make sure that during their process they meet operational specifications and maintain food safety. “Once the production process is completed, the finished product—the emulsion—should go through final testing to meet finished quality and safety specifications.”
Schmitt also notes that some state departments of agriculture have approved hemp cultivation and processing programs. In such states, the ingredient supplier should be licensed with the department of agriculture, he says. “For those states that don’t currently have such a program, ask to see if the extractor has a third-party audit that conforms to the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standard.”
Transparency in today’s fast-emerging cannabis industry is vital, says Schmitt. “As a business owner, you have to define what transparency means to you and to your consumer. Without defining that term up front, you will not be able to deliver as you feel fit. In order to meet the level of transparency you want to achieve, be sure to have a good conversations with your suppliers and make sure your questions get answered.” He points to certain expected standards of transparency in the food industry, such as having third-party audit documentation, product data sheets with specifications, Nutrition Facts information, and ingredient and allergen statements.
“We are somewhat unique in our ability to not only have a team of scientists who can customize an emulsion for you, but we can also help with the application of the emulsion to your specific product,” says Schmitt. He notes that this includes both developing a protocept—a conceptual prototype using your ingredients and/or your formulation—and guidance regarding how to add cannabinoid ingredients to the customer’s process. “For example, in the beverage world, one can mix all the ingredients into a giant holding tank before processing, or you can add your water to a concentrated slurry with inline mixing. We can help in both of those cases.”
Quality, consistency, and transparency are the top considerations when searching for the right supplier, suggests Jake Black, Ph.D., CEO, Treehouse, Longmont, CO. “There are many key players in the cannabinoid ingredient supply chain, starting with farmers growing cannabis and extending all the way to retailers. In between these points are hemp processors, extractors, testing labs, formulators, and more.” If any one of these links in the chain skimps on quality, the entire supply chain can end up compromised, potentially leading to major ramifications or a product recall, he says. “Alongside this, consistency is obviously key. If your end consumer cannot be guaranteed that their product will always be safe and always have the same effects, you will rapidly lose credibility.”
Transparency is critical for cannabinoid ingredients, says Black, because the lack of clear, standardized, federal regulation means the industry must sometimes self-regulate. “If any portion of the supply chain is not transparent with everything they do, that is a huge red flag. A lack of transparency seriously puts into question someone’s ability to consistently deliver quality products or services,” he says.
Black suggests that manufacturers of cannabis-infused foods and beverages get familiar with reading and understanding certificates of analysis (COAs). “Because of the lack of clear regulation on cannabinoid-containing products, there are varying—or nonexistent—standards for many products. That means all ingredients should be tested thoroughly, batch by batch, for a variety of potential contaminants, such as pesticides, heavy metals, solvents, and microbials. Additionally, tests for cannabinoid potency and THC compliance are key.” An ability to read and understand COAs helps individuals compare ingredients from different suppliers—and to help ensure safety and quality.
“At Treehouse, we strive to provide as much support as possible to all our customers,” says Black. “We make our team of Ph.D. chemists available for phone calls so they can share their knowledge on cannabinoid ingredients. Frequently, they discuss product quality, safety, our processing technologies, and new scientific developments with cannabinoids. We love brainstorming with customers to see how they can leverage our scientific expertise to differentiate their products in a crowded marketplace.”
Vetting equipment suppliers likewise requires some savvy analysis, notes David M. Miles, executive vice-president, MTI BioScience, Raleigh, NC. A key question to consider is whether or not the equipment supplier has the requisite level of experience to foster growth. He suggests asking the following questions when vetting suppliers:
- Are they experts in their field?
- Do they understand the requirements of the cannabis ingredients?
- Are they legally set up to work in the cannabis field, including banking?
- State cannabis laws are not standardized. Do they understand what can be done in different states?
- Can they support you in the long term?
“We customize our UHT/HTST/aseptic processing equipment for our clients’ needs,” says Miles. “For example, some products in the cannabis industry are extremely expensive, such as CBD extract. For these types of products, we modified our designs for strictly minimizing any waste, and strictly controlling portions and filling.”
Also, Miles notes that many new companies entering cannabis-infused product manufacturing do not have experience running formal processing equipment. “To address this, we simplify operation through custom automation,” he says.
“We provide extensive support for our customers’ product development process,” says Miles. “Much of the HTST/UHT/aseptic processing equipment we provide is used specifically for R&D. Many companies developing cannabis beverages do not have much food product development experience. They don’t understand the affects thermal processes have on products. We specialize in thermal processing and can help them develop and optimize thermal processes to maximize their product quality and functionality.”
Miles notes that his company has seen a number of common mistakes to avoid in this potentially lucrative industry, including:
- Using incorrectly specified equipment, resulting in expensive re-work solutions
- Lack of logical, “flow-through” design of the facility, making production inefficient and difficult
- Hiring friends rather than qualified people and staff to design and run the facility, resulting in facilities not meeting required standards and regulations
- Not having plans that enable them to satisfy potential FDA, sanitary, and/or other requirements
“Be careful who you partner with,” suggests Miles. “There are a lot of companies that are looking to make the fast buck and skimp on quality. Looking for the cheapest solutions will result in the lowest-quality solutions with little or no support. Look for companies with a long, successful history of partnering with clients and providing long-term solutions. It will be less expensive, and more successful in the long run.”