Why Cannabis Cares about Mycotoxins
A spotlight was shone on mycotoxins in the early ‘60’s after the death of over 100,000 turkeys on an English poultry farm. The culprit was a toxin produced by a common fungus called Aspergillus flavus which had contaminated peanut meal fed to the turkeys. This brought increased scrutiny to a vast array of agricultural products, with mycotoxins found in many – corn, wheat, peanuts, barley, rye, cottonseed, sugar cane and beets and hard cheeses.
So far there has been one public instance of a cannabis (drug) product being impacted by mycotoxins, and there could be more if companies do not seek to understand, prevent and control the cannabis when used as an ingredient.
What are Mycotoxins?
Defining mycotoxins with just a few words is tough but in brief, they are small molecules produced as metabolic by-products of fungi. Since mycotoxins can cause disease and death in animals and humans, regulations have since been introduced to limit levels of mycotoxins in food for humans and feeds for animals.
Two of the main types of mycotoxins associated with cannabis are aflatoxins and ochratoxins. Aflatoxins produced by Aspergillus species can cause liver cancer and can cross the placental barrier to exert harmful effects in the fetus. Ochratoxins have a similar mutagenic and carcinogenic profile to aflatoxins.
It is also very important to understand that heating/cooking of mycotoxin-contaminated food will not remove the problem as mycotoxins are heat stable. It’s also important to note that production of cannabis extracts involves the use of solvents to concentrate the cannabinoids into much smaller volumes. Most mycotoxins are also highly soluble in the same solvents so as cannabinoids are being concentrated, so are the mycotoxins that are present.
Given this, it is crucial that proper steps are taken to prevent the production of mycotoxins in cannabis.
Controlling Mycotoxins Means Controlling Mould
Mould likes moist environments and can grow on almost any substance when moisture is present. Cultivation conditions that support optimal cannabis production are also conducive to mould growth. Young cannabis plants do best when grown with high humidity levels and mature cannabis plants produce moisture while growing. In addition, cannabis growers try to seal their premises for odour, temperature and moisture control, and may be operating with densely packed growing conditions for their plants. Top that off with slow drying to maintain terpenes and flavor development during the curing phase and you have another opportunity for mould growth.
A clean environment for growing, drying and storing processes is a good approach, but it takes more vigilance than this. Once mould begins to spread from plant to plant, the entire crop may need to be destroyed. Mould spreads via spores which are easily carried by air currents. Spores can travel from room to room, as well as between attached buildings when they are connected by an air ventilation system.
Cannabis crops are very susceptible to mould growth from end to end, from seed to storage of the dried cannabis.
Prevention is Key
With so many opportunities for contamination to occur, it is important to use the preventative and risk-based approach offered by the implementation of a PCP program. It is also critical to understand cannabis as a raw ingredient, ensure the proper testing for mycotoxins is completed and that your supply chain is also taking account of these risks.
With a solid and vast knowledge in plant science, pharmaceutical science and food science, CCI specialists can help you with your PCP analysis. CCI’s expertise can also support you when developing preventive control plans for the manufacture of cannabis edibles and beverages and for implementation of an audit program that helps to verify your practices and those of your supply chain.
Written By: Shirley Toms, Senior Consultant, Quality and Regulatory