DENVER(MainStreet) — When marijuana became legal in Colorado, food safety instructor Maureen McNamara found that many people involved in the production of edible marijuana products started showing up at her classes. As a result of the demand, she created a course designed specifically for the industry.
McNamara, who has taught food-safety and alcohol courses to the restaurant industry for 18 years, bases her curriculum on the ServSafe Food Safety Training Program developed by the National Restaurant Association to provide comprehensive training materials to the restaurant industry.
And the edibles food-safety classes are selling out.
“In the restaurant industry, people do not want to come to these classes,” McNamara said. “In the cannabis classes, they want to be there. They really desire the information and they desire to do it.”
The course covers everything from personal hygiene to the ways food becomes contaminated and how to prevent it through sanitization and maintenance of proper temperatures.
“Food is food,” McNamara said. “There are certainly differences between a restaurant and a food manufacturer — I’m not aware of manufacturers working with foods like chicken. But they are working with chocolates, lozenges, baked goods and tinctures.”
McNamara’s vision is to teach the course on a national level. She’s already received an inquiry from the Massachusetts Department of Health regarding how her cannabis course is designed.
“I think it elevates the industry,” McNamara said. “As consumers, we will start looking at how edibles are made.”
And amid edibles-induced injuries and death in its first year of legal recreational marijuana, Colorado has realized the importance of maintaining such regulatory standards when it comes to pot-infused food.
Though the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division code addresses health and safety standards for infused products manufacturers and retailers, inspectors visiting those facilities are looking for compliance with tracking, security and surveillance regulations, said Natriece Bryant, a communications specialists with the Colorado Department of Revenue, which oversees the state's marijuana industry. Food safety falls under the jurisdiction of each municipality’s public health department, Bryant said.
“Though we’re not necessarily looking for food safety practices, if we see something wrong, we’ll make them correct it,” Bryant said. “But each local jurisdiction has their own public health regulations.”
But so far, Denver is the only jurisdiction to conduct food-safety inspections, which it started doing for the medical marijuana industry in 2010. The city’s Public Health Inspections Division of the Department of Environmental Health regulates all foods, including marijuana-infused foods and precursor extractions, to protect the health of consumers.
“Denver was the only jurisdiction that made that move,” said Danica Lee, food safety section manager for Denver’s health department, which requires those involved in the manufacturing of edibles to be trained in food safety. “It’s been a learning curve for us, but we have come a long way.”
There is no known published research that addresses how pathogens grow in marijuana extractions and their derivatives, so it’s challenging for the department’s staff to know what will cause food-born illnesses. The department is applying existing food regulations and research on food science to assess the risk of marijuana-infused products.
“Any time we have an oil that has any type of plant material infused in it, we have a concern for botulism to grow,” Lee said. “We’re in a position where we’re stuck using information about food science and applying it to marijuana, because we don’t have at the body of research yet.”
Other municipalities take direction from the Colorado Department of Public Health, which says it doesn’t play a role in food safety for the manufacture of marijuana-infused edible products, because it considers THC-infused products a medical delivery device rather than food.
Julie Dooley, owner of edibles producer Julie’s Baked Goods, says her entire staff is ServSafe certified and half of employees are trained culinary experts. She also has her products laboratory tested to ensure they are safe for public consumption.
“The biggest thing with edibles is cross contamination with hand washing and food that’s not kept at the proper temperature,” Dooley said. “Those are easy to eliminate when you have trained staff. Basically, if you follow to the letter every single rule, you’re going to have a safe product.”
--Written by Margaret Jackson for MainStreet