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Jim Sanfilippo, VIST Labs:

“85% of the raw cannabis samples we test contain Aspergillus”

"Cannabis is as susceptible to microbial decontamination as raw milk. We see cannabis contaminated at levels that are way higher than you would ever see in the food industry. Yet not all U.S. states have quantitative microbial testing requirements," says Jim Sanfilippo, CEO of VIST Labs. The company has a background in the food industry as well as the pharmaceutical and medical industries, focused on bioburden control, modified atmospheric packaging and aseptic packaging. "Our invention of cryogenic pasteurization is inspired by our years of experience in the food business, but much more engineered around the sensitivity and fragility of cannabis."

Rob Bourque and Elle Behrens at ICBC Berlin

Jim Sanfilippo on the left

VIST Labs' cryogenic pasteurization system is a natural approach to decontamination. "We use medical grade water along with cryogenic nitrogen as our sterilant, which is very powerful. This 'cryogenic vapor' ensures that the pasteurization happens without oxidative degradation. Within a matter of minutes, the product is decontaminated, pathogenic organisms have been inactivated, and total yeast, mold and aerobic bacteria counts have been brought to almost zero while maintaining the quality of the product," Jim says. He adds that VIST's technology is the subject of numerous patents.

According to Jim, this technology offers a solution to a big problem in the industry. "About half of the U.S. states have pasteurization standards for cannabis, where they target levels of 10,000 colonies per gram or less. Other states don't have any quantitative microbial testing requirements. That's why we regularly do secret shopping at dispensaries. The microbial average in California is approximately 200,000 CFU per gram, which is alarmingly high. Additionally, there are over 200 species of Aspergillus with over 50 pathogenic strains and we find it in over 85% of the raw cannabis samples that we test," Jim says. That's why VIST Labs advocates for a six-log kill step and pasteurization standards across the U.S. "The consumers don't know how contaminated their products are, and it is not right to unnecessary expose cannabis users to such contamination."

In Europe, the regulations are much stricter. "In Europe, everything is under European Pharmacopoeia standards. Cannabis is only allowed to have 20 colonies of mold per gram and 200 colonies of aerobic bacteria per gram. Those are essentially sterilization standards, whereas some U.S. states don't have any quantitative microbial standards at all."

Jim adds that some states started off with testing for pathogenic organisms, but that producers were struggling to meet the limits. "Oregon, for example, had mandated state testing for four species of Aspergillus for the outset of its cannabis market. Yet so many growers were failing the tests that the requirement has been temporarily stopped. That goes to show how much of a challenge it is for producers." According to VIST Labs, just like in the food industry, pasteurization offers the solution. "It's an organic method that does not affect the quality of the end product. It gently decontaminates cannabis from yeast, mold, bacteria, and pathogens (including aspergillus), and preserves the terpenes and cannabinoids by removing all the oxygen."

The importance of packaging
Yet the solution doesn't stop there. VIST also offers Aseptic Modified Atmospheric Packaging Systems (AMAPS). "This is pharmaceutical-grade packaging that has an ultra-low oxygen environment. At near zero oxygen levels, several things don't happen: microbial growth no longer occurs and water activity is not high enough for anaerobic bacteria to grow," Jim explains. "Also, there's no oxygen to catalyze degradation, which is an oxidative reaction. So there will be no significant terpene or cannabinoid degradation and our packaging technology extends the shelf life."

Small and large-scale growers
When it comes to both cryopasteurization and packaging, VIST wants to help growers of all sizes. "That's why we've set up service centers, where smaller-sized cultivators can send their product. There, we have all the equipment to process and package the grower's products and have it ready for independent state testing. Larger growers will typically want to have the systems in-house, so they can do everything themselves. So they would either purchase or lease the equipment. We've had installations that pasteurize and package up to 160 pounds of cannabis per hour. These are very high output lines that are targeted towards large cultivators. It's important to us to provide solutions for everyone in the industry, whether small- or large-scale."

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