Overseeing Marijuana Edibles Companies: Q&A With Denver Food Inspector Danica Lee

By Fred Dreier

If you want to get an idea of what the future holds for regulations on edibles companies, look to Denver.

The city’s Department of Environmental Health requires edibles manufacturers to meet the same health safety standards as restaurants and traditional food companies. Brownies, candies and other infused treats must be cooked and stored at specific temperatures. Employees must follow guidelines on hygiene and cleanliness, and edibles companies are subject to unannounced inspections by food regulators.

This type of oversight could become the norm across the country as states increasingly look to tighten up regulations on infused products businesses.

Danica Lee – program manager of the Denver health department’s food safety section has been inspecting edibles companies since 2011.

Marijuana Business Daily caught up with Lee to discuss various aspects of the inspection program:

Q: How have you seen edibles companies change during your time inspecting them?

A: When we first started inspecting we were seeing such a variety of foods. We saw the typical brownies all the way up to pizzas and canned tomato sauces and all types of salty foods. That was before the market became more stabilized around sweets.

We became aware that there were all of these retail locations, and food was being handled there. We made the decision then to treat [edibles] like regular foods.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge for your office in working with cannabis companies?

A: There’s been a big learning curve in identifying and understanding some of the processes used to extract THC into its concentrated form.

We’ve only started to really understand how the extractions are made, and for a while, we were learning something new every day.

We are not inspecting the extraction process under food safety regulations, but we do go to the locations, and there are safety policies we’ve had to enact for our staff.

A lot of these extractions are made using hydrocarbons like butane, and when you go into an establishment, you want to see a hydrocarbon detector to make sure it is safe. If one isn’t there, we need to get out of there.

Q: What types of violations are you seeing at edibles manufacturers, versus traditional food companies?

A: Most have to deal with the improper storage of the extracting concentrates that are either oils or have been infused into oil.

There is nothing in our food safety regulations for deactivating botulism in marijuana foods. You have to heat the marijuana. But we have a nice parallel from plant- and herb-infused oils.

We see that in the food industry all the time. Keeping [oil] at 41 degrees or less and treating it as a potentially hazardous food is how [businesses] should handle oils. It has to be temperature controlled.

At no point can you treat them differently, unless there is evidence that storing [cannabis oil] at room temperature is a safe practice.

Q: How could the industry go about changing that rule?

A: We have been contacted by several labs that are wanting to test for this.

The problem is that we aren’t looking for one test, we are looking for research from the food industry about how well spores can survive, different processing methods and marijuana extractions.

Q: What types of violations do you traditionally see with edibles companies?

A: There are a lot of parallels in the violation rates for marijuana and non-marijuana food companies, and we’re seeing similar violations.

Mostly it’s improper storage of edible products, or edible material being stored at improper temperatures. But I wouldn’t say there is a compliance problem. Overall we’re seeing an increase in compliance from [marijuana] facilities, and they are eager to correct violations when they do arise.

Q: What is the punishment for these violations?

A: We are applying the same criteria as we do for any food facility, and I’m sure we’ve assessed multiply fines to marijuana businesses.

If a facility gets two of the same critical violations they are subject to a $250 fine. If its three or more of the same violations over 12 months it is a $500 fine. The fines can add up, but there is a $1,000 cap per inspection.

But we do other type of enforcement, and we have the power to close a facility if there is a public health risk.

Q: Do you predict the department will create its own division for examining edibles manufacturers separately from traditional food companies?

A: I don’t see that happening at a local level in Denver.

It’s worked out well for us to have food safety investigators conduct the inspections. We deal with the Denver Food Establishments Regulations, and simply apply them to [edibles] businesses, and it seems to be working out.

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