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The State of Cannabis-Microbe Testing: A Q&A With bioMérieux’s Maria McIntyre

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Aug 31, 2022   

Image credit: Maria McIntyre

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Looking for microbiological contaminants in cannabis products is no little task. Bugs like E. coli and Aspergillus require rigorous, validated methods to weed them out of product samples – methods like bioMérieux’s GENE-UP PRO assay to detect Shiga-toxin producingE. coli and Salmonella. Last September, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test became the first of its kind to receive an approval from AOAC International.

To learn more about this test, more like it, and the future of microbe testing in the cannabis sector, Analytical Cannabis caught up with Maria McIntyre, head of cannabis at bioMérieux.

Leo Bear-McGuinness (LBM): Hi Maria. Since the AOAC validation last September, what have been the latest microbe testing developments at bioMérieux?

Maria McIntyre (MM): Well, there’s a lot of things that are the same and a lot of things that have been unchanged that remain to be a challenge for the industry today. I feel that we continue with regulatory specifications that are not always based on sound science. And this is a foundation that then branches into many other challenges, including lab shopping, consumer safety, and employee retention.

LBM: Lab shopping’s a big issue among the sector, but it primarily concerns THC inflation. Are you aware of any similar incidences involving microbe testing results?

MM: You’re correct there. Although a lot of the media focuses on lab shopping regarding THC, I do see that the same is happening on the microbiology side of things, which certainly brings a health and safety issue to hand. The industry focuses on compliance testing and there’s a concern of quality control being brought in at the end and not having those checks and balances throughout operations. The final results are the only insight that most groups get into what their product is. I often use the analogy – compliance testing alone is like taking a test that you never did the work to prepare [for]. The outcomes are the focus and not the steps to ensure that the compliance would be achieved.

LBM: THC tampering is an issue in its own right. But when it comes to potential tampering with microbe results, that’s a real safety concern, especially considering some of the immunocompromised patients that use medical cannabis. I mean, that’s the whole purpose of testing, isn’t it? To identify dangerous products?

MM: Indeed, I agree with you on the purpose of testing. [That’s] really the mission of bioMérieux, to improve patient health and ensure consumer safety with our simple-to-use cannabis science and microbiology testing solutions. So it’s our mission to house solutions to meet the industry needs to enhance safety, as well as to be ambassadors to those conversations to mitigate risks.

LBM: And when it comes to that mission, I think I remember reading earlier this year that you had a method validated by AOAC; I think it was for Salmonella and the Shiga-toxin producing E. coli. Sounds like you’re making progress.

MM: You’re right, we have. As a AOAC became more relevant in the cannabis industry, bioMérieux came into that circle for validating our cannabis methods, including the Salmonella and the Shiga-toxin producing E. coli assays – actually, almost all of our assays that are relevant within the cannabis space.

LBM: So there are other method validations in progress?

MM: Certainly so; we do also have AOAC validation in quite a few other assays. I may leave a few out because there are quite a few. So we have an AOAC [validation] for Aspergillus with upfront speciation of the big four Aspergillus species that are risk factors for cannabis consumers. Similar to what you mentioned with Salmonella, we have a combined kit that has an AOAC approval as well as those individual assays meeting the needs of the states that may not have both of those requirements, as well as moving away from the presence or absence of pathogens and into the quality indicators where there’s usually a count associated with them for yeast and mold as well as aerobic counts.

LBM: Fantastic. And are you seeing any further pickup of these bioMérieux methods among cannabis labs? It’s quite something to have that AOAC validation. Maybe that stamp of approval can help widen the use of these methods.

MM: You’re spot on there; it certainly does broaden the scope to have multiple validations and proven science. Not all science is good science. So, to have the AOAC’s certification process and acceptance that [bioMérieux has] robust and reliable science – combining that with our really simplified protocols that fuel optimization within laboratories – there’s certainly been an increase in partnerships for the cannabis industry.

LBM: Wonderful. So what’s the goal after that? To help encourage the states to require and enforce these microbe testing methods?

MM: You’re right. The mandate for good science would be the initiative. Leveraging the long history of bioMérieux in providing diagnostic solutions to multiple industries, as well as our knowledge from food and pharma and nutraceutical and other areas, can really be a resource to the cannabis industry and help the science and safety for the industry.

LBM: With the same kind of logic, I wonder if bioMérieux is interested in expanding the portfolio of microbes that cannabis lab should be looking for?

MM: Yes, there’s always opportunities to innovate and expand to support the needs and the safety of the industry, and one area that a couple states now have regulations against is Listeria. And that’s something that has had our eye at bioMérieux for quite some time, because Listeria does have risk factors in the food and pharmaceutical industries. And the diversity of product types within the cannabis industry [can] really parallel food processes. There’s the potential need and potential risk there for Listeria.

LBM: Well, we’ll definitely keep an eye on that Listeria development. Is there anything else that you’d like to add, Maria?

MM: Thank you I appreciate that. I feel like could get on a soapbox here. I’d first say that it’s important for readers to know and understand that the regulations are patchwork state by state, and in many cases do not address the risk factors of microbiology, and that leads to an opportunity to advocate and increase the product safety for consumers. And it’s important to emphasize that the mission of bioMérieux is the commitment to meet the evolving needs of the industry and continue innovations with current organisms that are of interest and expand over the course of time.

LBM: Any other cannabis projects that aren’t microbe assays we should know about?

MM: We will see shortly the launch of a gender identification for plant material assay, which is a unique and novel workflow, saving some time and labor and optimizing operations. And it fits into the bioMérieux standpoint of simple, reliable, robust science, and then fuels the operations and efficiencies within laboratories. From there, there’ll be several other innovations shortly down the pike.

I think there’s value for your readers to also understand the further dynamics of bioMérieux and the long history and focus of microbiology. So as bioMérieux entered the cannabis space nearly ten years ago, naturally being a microbiology diagnostic company, we knew and understand the microbes. We knew and understood the other industries that we worked in, such as food, pharma, and nutraceutical, and dealing with difficult and diverse matrices. And that was an easy bridge over to cannabis, with similar and different diverse matrices of itself. That what I’m getting at here – that knowledge of decades and decades of work combined can be a true asset to the industry in terms of understanding risks and having solutions to ensure products are safe and consumers are protected.

Maria McIntyre, head of cannabis at bioMérieux, was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness. Responses have been edited for clarity.

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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