Laws and Regulations

The Challenges of Organic Certification in the Hemp Industry

Written by Paul James

The hemp industry remains largely unregulated by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). With a lack of mandate, it’s understandable that customers are wary about purchasing unsafe hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) products. Therefore, quality protocols like organic certification–as combined with safety measures like third-party testing–seem like trustworthy measures to take.

Unfortunately, there are some challenges facing hemp industry companies that are trying to build a reputation for themselves as safe and reliable.

For starters, the FDA has not approved CBD in food or beverages as “Generally Recognized As Safe” (“GRAS”). With that, organic certifiers have encountered difficulties when it comes to deeming a CBD product–more particularly, CBD edibles and beverages–as “organic” and subject to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines. In fact, until the FDA provides us with more comprehensible guidelines, certifiers will likely avoid certain products.

However, this isn’t to deem the products unsafe. All companies who’ve earned an organic certification are held accountable to high safety standards. If interested, you can look into the USDA Integrity Database to find out whether a company is organic.

The challenges go beyond food and beverages. It’s understood that in accordance with the 2018 Farm Bill, all hemp must contain less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Some hemp plants, however, are fortuitously grown past this threshold.

With such a high demand for CBD products, farmers are growing more hemp than ever before. Yet, much of this crop is going to waste as it doesn’t meet with federal guidelines. In fact, the USDA estimated that nearly 20% of hemp lots would be destroyed this year due to exceeding the 0.3% THC limit.

While there was a push for legislation to raise the THC limit to 0.5%, this request was met with refusal.

A farmer might be able to cultivate plants with total THC levels below 0.3% but not all hemp or CBD businesses operate from seed to sale. In other words, many CBD businesses may have little control over whether their farmers grow crops within the legal limits. However, businesses can request a certificate of analysis (CoA) in order to identify exact phytocannabinoid counts.

In addition, many extraction facilities cannot perform all the processing required for CBD products in the market, including THC remediation to compliant levels (at minimum) through processes like chromatography to keep CBD concentrations high–or perhaps just through blending with a carrier like hemp or coconut oil, which also lowers CBD levels.

In such cases, the best option would be to ship oils to someone else’s extraction facility that does have the ability to maintain the integrity of the organic chain.

Yet, if one were to do this, it would come at a cost many businesses can’t add to their plate. To ship, a business would need to dilute its extraction to compliant levels. The only way to truly accomplish this is through organic solvent (such as ethanol). However, this solvent is often met with an egregious tax, making the whole idea of shipping oils to other facilities highly impractical.

Unless your company has control over the entire supply chain–from seed to sale–you may face some additional challenges that other companies don’t have to handle. It’s therefore important to evaluate these issues from all angles before starting a business. And, as with so many aspects of an industry that is still in its infancy, we will likely see many of these policies continually challenged and hopefully improved, so that all participants in the process–including consumers–will face fewer hurdles in their business and personal pursuits.

Image Credit: Rick Proctor

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About the author

Paul James