As these subcategories take off, how do we process this product? What will the cannabis processing plant of the future look like? In order to scale, marijuana needs to move from being hand-picked or farmed in a small agricultural manner, to the plant environment. Down one stream, it will be pressed, heated, and rendered into a liquid format; down another, it will be chopped or dried and added to other products. As it reaches the level of manufacturing, production will have to scale up to supply the cookie or cereal manufacturer, for example, their key additive. There will be plant and processing implications.
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In addition to increased levels of plant security around authentication, an important new challenge for producers will be handling the product itself. In its dry state as well as liquid reductions, workers could get “high” as a result of the dust and fumes. Sterilization methods, cleanrooms. and air quality will be extremely important in these plants—so added layers of air conditioning, dehumidifying, and dusting equipment must be planned for and built in. In a current plant environment where spices, herbs, seasonings, peanuts, and other allergens are processed, cleanrooms must be created to separate these ingredients out from the others. When cannabis is prepared so it could be mixed in with cookie dough or another product, it’s handled differently in that environment.
The ideal plant for the future of this industry is, first, a dedicated cannabis plant. If I were to recommend a location, it would be a growing new boom town, so that manufacturers could set up dedicated processing plants close to where the farms are located. The ideal structure would be a co-op, where farmers bring in their product to be processed. The plant would be dedicated to the special processing needs of the different farms, packaging the product for them, and sending it out. There would be specialized equipment, a sterile environment, cleanrooms, and as much automation as possible to minimize the number of people working there—because of the possible aftereffects. How the farmers want it packaged would determine the predisposition of the product before it reaches the facility.
Packaging Safely for the Next User
This brings up the question, when the product comes out, how should it be packaged? In bags, in small-dosage packaging? When flavors are processed in a flavor plant, they’re packaged in small vials. Will it be the same with cannabis? There will be a conversation in the industry as to how to best package cannabis to keep its properties, so that the next person in the chain receives it and can be assured of its purity in their process.
If cannabis follows the path of other highly regulated herbs and spices, it will be packaged in a way that the next manufacturer down the line wants to use it, and when it gets to that plant, there will be a separate area where it is strictly accounted for. At this point, it takes on the guise of a precious metal. It’s not only regulated, but its cost will impact how the ingredient is managed. One similar example of a rare and expensive herb is saffron—processing saffron is a delicate, hands-on job, and it’s put together in highly regulated doses to be handed off to the customer.
Uses and Implications of Marijuana in Specialty Foods
On a final note, there are implications of the new cannabis industry on two other growing businesses—specialty foods, and the vitamins and supplements sector. At a recent Fancy Food Show, the Specialty Food Association had to turn down several products containing marijuana that were submitted, not because of their lack of quality, but simply because of the lack of consistent national legality. We expect that to change in coming years.