Source: Denver (By Eric Gorski)

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 foodborne 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 foodborne 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.

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 foodborne 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.

The state Department of Revenue began requiring edible manufacturers to test for potency May 1 but does not require testing of bacteria associated with foodborne 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.

Henderson said the city lacks the data to compare compliance in the edible marijuana businesses to, say, restaurants.

Marisa Bunning, associate professor and extension specialist in food science and human nutrition at Colorado State University, said time and temperature abuses have long been shown to make food unsafe.

"The system we have in place — with health departments maintaining the standards that have been set and citing establishments that don't follow those — that is a very good system that prevents illness," Bunning said. "This is a new industry, so it's probably going to take some time to learn the safe handling practices that are necessary."

Dixie Elixirs and Edibles of Denver, Colorado's highest-profile infused-products company, was cited in March for keeping bottles of oils at room temperature that inspectors said should be refrigerated.

The inspector spoke with Dixie about testing the products for pH and water activity, which can determine whether food products kept at room temperature can support the rapid growth of microorganisms, an inspection report said.

Dixie Elixirs spokesman Joe Hodas said the company responded immediately, hiring a private lab to test its products.

"This came up quickly and took everyone by surprise," Hodas said of the city food oversight. "Ultimately, we want to have a partnership with the regulators and various departments involved so we can work together to achieve the best end goal, which is everybody's safety."

City officials say they were satisfied with the test results on Dixie infused drinks but asked for more documentation on its tinctures.

In a letter to dispensaries, the company said its tinctures should be refrigerated until further notice.

Refrigeration order
Another edibles manufacturer, Marqaha, was ordered to inform dispensaries to refrigerate its infused juices, teas, tinctures and sprays.

The city says the company has not provided any test results showing the drinks are safe to store at room temperature.

The Department of Revenue has moved to revoke the license of Marqaha, which has been twice raided by federal agents in an ongoing investigation involving charges of international money laundering.

Other violations found by city food inspectors were more straightforward.

Last month, inspectors found edibles manufacturer Canna Elixirs lacking paper towels, sanitizer or proper sinks. The operator couldn't explain correct procedures for cleaning and sanitizing.

After city officials deemed products made there "unwholesome," the operator put 73 caramels and the contents of 11 bottles of infused soda into a bucket, doused it with bleach and dirt and threw it out.

Canna Elixirs sent recall notices to 11 dispensaries and stores, the city said.

Eric Underwood, Canna Elixirs' owner and sole employee, said in an interview the city should give businesses "a little leeway" as it takes new enforcement steps. However, he added: "My fault, ultimately."

Some dispensaries were cited for keeping refrigerated edibles in coolers that weren't cold enough — in some cases by 20 degrees.

At Patients Choice dispensary on Morrison Road, inspectors found expired coconut oil and mold on infused butter.

Other local and regional health agencies are following Denver's lead with food safety inspections of edibles, or are considering it.

Pueblo County last month began requiring edibles businesses seeking a new or renewed license to be inspected by the Pueblo City-County Health Department, a spokeswoman said.

"There have been a lot of toe dips in the water, a lot of local communities through their county commissions or city government placing this on their agendas for discussion," said Jeff Lawrence, director of the state Department of Public Health and Environment's Division of Environmental Health and Sustainability.

When health officials investigate foodborne disease outbreaks, they seek to interview victims to try to identify the source of the problem. Lawrence said the forms either have been or soon will be revised to include a question about consumption of edibles.