James Ashkar, owner of At Home Baked, checks products at Advanced Medical Alternatives. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Surprise health inspections for Denver makers of pot edibles

Food safety inspections of businesses that manufacture and sell marijuana edibles in Denver have found products that should be refrigerated sitting out on shelves and preparation methods insufficient to kill bacteria that can cause serious food-borne illness.

The unannounced visits by the Denver Department of Environmental Health have led to three product recalls and the destruction of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of products.

State and local health authorities have not linked edibles to any confirmed cases of food-borne illnesses. City officials say the marijuana industry has been responsive to their concerns and all products identified as unsafe have been taken off the market.

The violations mark the first time a Colorado health agency has held kitchens producing pot-infused brownies, cookies and tinctures to the same food-safety standards as restaurants.

“Overall, I think there is a high level of compliance in the industry,” said Bob McDonald, the city of Denver’s director of public health inspections. “That doesn’t mean we don’t come across critical violations from time to time.”

A Denver Post review of city records found inspectors have identified 58 critical violations at 24 businesses, most of them since March.

City officials said that since January 2013, inspectors have made at least 340 visits to edibles manufacturers and the medical dispensaries and recreational pot shops that sell their products.

The food-safety push — so far unique to Denver but under consideration elsewhere — comes at a sensitive time for Colorado’s edibles industry. Two recent deaths have been tied to infused candy and cookies, emergency rooms are reporting more bad reactions and cases of children becoming ill, and state regulators are weighing new restrictions on potency and serving sizes.

Dangerous bacteria
Scott Henderson, food program supervisor for the Denver Department of Environmental Health, said the city began applying existing food regulations to edibles because of rising safety concerns.

Plant-infused oils can support the growth of dangerous bacteria that can cause illness if eaten, Henderson said.

The city’s food safety regulations classify plant-infused oils as “potentially hazardous foods,” meaning they must be stored refrigerated to prevent bacterial growth unless otherwise approved. The oils are used as the active ingredient in many infused foods.

Other edibles testing: Lab analysis of THC potency is now mandatory

City health authorities are especially concerned that edibles will become breeding grounds for the bacteria that can lead to botulism, a potentially fatal but extremely rare food-borne illness.

Henderson said the bacterial threat exists if temperatures are not hot enough during the extraction process or if certain store-ready edible products are not stored at 41 degrees or colder.

Most infused baked goods are fine on shelves if the marijuana extraction or concentrate has been continuously refrigerated before being added, according to a department memo last month.

Henderson said the biggest worries center on oils and extractions with glycol or a glycerine-based substance. Basically, that means anything that exists in an anaerobic, or oxygen-free, environment.

One infused-product manufacturer, Mile High Distributing, was hit with a cease-and-desist order and told to recall infused olive oil that was being stored at room temperature after being created in an ethanol hash oil extraction that was not hot enough.

The company also was ordered to recall liquid THC drops kept at room temperature.

Henderson said 272 3-milliliter bottles of the drops and 21 bottles of olive oil were returned to the company as a result.

Company officials did not return numerous calls requesting comment.

“Witch hunt”
Edibles manufacturer At Home Baked, operating under a license held by Advanced Medical Alternatives, was instructed to stop selling and destroy its marijuana-infused baking mixes and oil pouches.

The company used a cold-water hash extraction in oil stored in reduced oxygen packaging at room temperature, which is conducive to spore germination and toxin formation, a report says.

Co-owner James Ashkar said he understands the city’s concerns.

But he said the botulism threat is virtually nonexistent, no one has ever gotten sick from his products and the city is overstepping its bounds in a “witch hunt on edibles.”

At Home Baked changed its methods to address the city’s concerns, Ashkar said.

Editorial: Dangerous advice on edibles dosage when caution is crucial

The state Department of Revenue began requiring edible manufacturers to test for potency May 1 but does not require testing of bacteria associated with food-borne illness like botulism and listeria.

Henderson acknowledged that the extent of the botulism threat from extraction methods, of which there are many, is unknown.

“The big issue is that we don’t know and they don’t know,” Henderson said. “The easiest way to ensure something is safe is to hit that high temperature.”

Further complicating the issue, research on effective measures for killing bacterial spores in marijuana products to make them safe for being kept at room temperature is nonexistent, city health department officials say.

More: A closer look at some of the city health violations

This story was first published on DenverPost.com