With dried cannabis, fresh cannabis, and cannabis oil legalized in Canada on October 17, edible cannabis products are also expected to follow suit and become legal no later than Oct. 17, 2019. Roughly half of Canadians surveyed last year said they were interested in trying smoke-free edible cannabis alternatives, which occupy between 10 and 15 percent of the cannabis market in U.S. states that have legalized.
Despite the demand, however, the Canadian government is not rushing into edibles legalization—and for those in the realm of food safety, the reason comes as no surprise. Beyond making certain the industry abides by the standard slate of food safety rules, Health Canada has to contend with an additional set of concerns unique to cannabis edibles.
“Regulations are required to enable the production and sale of these classes of cannabis, as well as to address the unique public health and safety risks associated with cannabis edibles and concentrates (for example, the risk of cannabis edibles accidentally being ingested by children),” says Maryse Durette, senior media relations advisor for Health Canada, noting draft federal regulations on edible cannabis products will be published in the winter, and final regulations will appear no later than next October 17.
Additional concerns specific to cannabis edibles include the need for the Canadian Food and Drug Act to be rewritten to include cannabis products, and the pressing issue of making certain that each food or beverage item containing cannabis is both dosed and labeled correctly, so consumers always get the precise dose of cannabinoids they are expecting. Additionally, the government needs to deal with the standard roster of food safety challenges any producer must settle.
Though Durette will not answer questions about how Health Canada would specifically be working to set standards for these issues—she says to do so would be “conjecture,”—she stresses that “Health Canada is working diligently to develop these regulations, and intends to consult with Canadians.”
Among those Health Canada has consulted is Brandon Wright, CEO of Victoria BC’s Baked Edibles, which bills itself as “Canada’s Longest-Running Commercial Cannabis Bakery.”
“We were able to describe for Health Canada the challenges we’d faced already in creating products that were both food safe, and consistently dosed,” Wright tells Food Quality and Safety. “As a small business, we spoke directly to the challenges that a future craft-edibles manufacturer will have. From what I’ve seen, Health Canada is doing a very good job of reaching out to both cannabis and food industry for feedback in developing their upcoming regulations.”
Baked Edibles operates in the legally mysterious British Columbia context. The company contends it is legally protected under the R. v Smith 2015 Supreme Court ruling granting the constitutional right to possess cannabis derivatives for medical purposes, and it sources cannabis from growers licensed under the federal Medical Marihuana Access Regulations. Its products are sold both through licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, and also sometimes found on illegal mail-order marijuana sites, though the company itself does not sell directly to the public.
Wright’s experiences before Baked Edibles were largely in the restaurant industry, where he says he learned “first-hand (repeatedly) how beneficial consistent food handling practices could be to an organization’s long-term success.” At the beginning of Baked Edibles, he was trained by a management team and says, “I was surprised; they paid way more attention to food safety than I had expected, but the resulting effects were obvious and went way beyond food safety.”
For Wright, the edibles market can’t become legal fast enough. He welcomes food safety oversight in an industry that has long existed behind a curtain of paranoid secrecy.
“I would hope that we see a lot more direct involvement from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA),” Wright says. “One of the issues that has surrounded edibles is that almost nobody knows how or where they are made, and under what conditions. While we’ve tried to change that already, we are also looking forward to seeing food standards in place for products that are distributed nationally.”
He notes that any changes will demand his company meet the needs of the Cannabis Act and come into line with CFIA standards, but while he notes “the marriage of the two will be unique,” he’s not worried about the demands.
“We are already in a compliant and food safety mindset, which is one of the first things a team needs to adopt,” he says.
However, the question of dosing remains a nagging concern because, Wright explains, guaranteeing dosages per unit dramatically limits the variety of different products a company can produce.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s a lot more difficult to make a consistently dosed edible—unless there is some specific portion of it that can be consistently dosed,” says Wright. “For example, I can see a clear path to successfully dosing a Nanaimo Bar, digestive biscuit, or two-bite brownie, but how would you ensure a consistent dosage is applied to a serving of popcorn? I don’t see it being difficult to meet these standards, but the real battles will be fought at the product planning stage. Many products are just going to be very difficult to dose by nature.”