The intersection of marijuana and food safety

I hate missing hockey. Skipping my Monday night game was worth it though; I spent some time with some old friends at the Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference in Denver. I’d been with the good folks of Colorado before, speaking at the conference in 2006 (and again virtually with Doug a couple of years ago).

Sometimes food safety meetings have similar slots: updates on recent outbreaks, a company’s new training strategy or someone talking about environmental sampling. The Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference was different. I spent an afternoon learning about keeping marijuana and food products safe.

I found it fascinating.

Doug often cites a Neil Young quote that guides a lot of stuff that I do ‘Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.’ Farmers’ markets, food pantries, roadkill. These are all in the food safety ditch. So is pot.

I learned that marijuana (and the active compounds of THC and CBD) can be consumed in lots of different ways – smoking is the somewhat traditional way, but there’s vaping, edibles (cookies, candies, chocolates, etc) and even suppositories, tampons and personal lubricants. Who knew.

What was really compelling is the intricacies of the regulations and enforcement. The state health folks are in a tough spot because they receive federal funds – and the product is still seen as illegal by the feds. This has led to some local health departments have stepped in to regulating not only just the retail stores on how they handle the food and other products – but also the marijuana infused product processing. I’ve said that environmental health specialists are the salt of the earth; passionate protectors of public health and have some of the very best stories. It’s heartening to see folks who know food safety stuff putting together a framework of science-based guidelines for pathogen control, pesticides and other risky compounds. They’re trailblazers since there’s not a whole lot to go on. They look to LACF thermal death curves for C. bot spore inactivation in oils and tinctures (these aren’t highly refined oils) and requiring folks to manage cleaning and sanitation using GMP and the Food Code as a guide. There are risks, marijuana smoking was linked to a 1981 outbreak of salmonellosis (an oldie but a goodie) and some of the edibles out there have the correct pH and water activity to support the growth of pathogens.

And labeling, serving/dose size matters.

My guess is that there are a few processors who are really good at the THC part of things – and not so good at the food safety. It’s cool that the local regulators are working with them to keep the stoners safe.

I got back in time for my hockey game tonight.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.