Consistency, Safety, and Honesty in CBD

Imagine tearing into a bag of potato chips and discovering beet chips. Or opening a bottle of ibuprofen only to discover acetaminophen. Have trouble imagining it? That’s because modern CPG regulations are built on the concept of standards of identity, which give consumers certainty that “the product is what the label says it is.” That, in a nutshell, is FDA’s mandate: to ensure consumers can trust that if the label hasn’t changed, neither has the product.

So why can’t we expect the same from CBD?

Product inconsistency is rampant in the hemp space, for plenty of reasons. It starts with the plant itself—the hemp plant comprises hundreds of compounds, each with their own structures and functions. Concentrations of these compounds will vary from batch to batch, and even plant to plant, which makes it impossible to define such a thing as a “standard hemp plant,” let alone  a “full spectrum” or “broad spectrum” extract that “mirrors the plant.” 

Cannabinoids are bioactives, and bioactives have health effects. When bioactive composition varies, so too do effects. That makes product consistency important not just for brand protection, but for consumer safety. How can consumers make an educated choice about what products to buy when a variety of bioactive compositions with varying health effects are all labeled the same? The answer, of course, is that they can’t.

This isn’t a hypothetical problem. Consumers are already suffering from the CBD market’s lack of shared standards. A 2017 analysis found that nearly 70 percent of all CBD products sold online contained more or less CBD than claimed—and some 21 percent contained detectable THC. Indeed, some 39 percent of current cannabis consumers claimed that “manufacturers need to do a better job of making product dosages reliably consistent from serving to serving” in a recent IRI/BDS Analytics survey. 

The lack of clear, science-based labeling guidelines and predictable enforcement only makes things murkier. With no nationally mandated labeling standards and early movers trying their best to avoid regulatory scrutiny through clever language, it’s often unclear how much CBD (or any other cannabinoid) is present. Some manufacturers, in an attempt to meet retailer guidelines, will intentionally obfuscate CBD content by labeling it indirectly, either by noting the presence of “25 mg hemp extract” or simply “25 mg per serving.” What those claims mean in terms of CBD content is a question left to consumers to figure out. Simply put, consumers deserve better.

An existential threat (and opportunity)
The lack of consistent products isn’t just exasperating, it’s an existential threat to the CBD industry itself. Consumers stung by uneven experiences with CBD products will tend to ascribe the problems to CBD rather than to the manufacturer, leaving all manufacturers worse off. As a company who believes in the benefits of CBD, we’re tired of seeing terms like “snake oil” and  “buyer beware” in news stories and editorials like this one, from former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. But it’s hard to disagree that many CBD manufacturers today prioritize cash over consumer safety. We can and must do better.

Our industry is at risk of losing consumer trust just as it’s poised to become one of the greatest growth stories in years. We need to be honest about what we know and what we don’t, and develop products with our own knowledge gaps in mind. We know that CBD is “generally well tolerated with a good safety profile” because credible health organizations like the WHO have done the research. The same cannot (yet) be said of other cannabinoids. Caution is warranted, and consumer safety depends on us to behave responsibly.

As bad as all this sounds, it’s also a huge opportunity to do things right. Even in the absence of specific FDA guidance on CBD, we can all agree to conform to the rules that already exist for food, beverage, and supplement products. Current food and beverage QMS requirements can serve as standards for CBD-infused foods, beverages, and supplements. Labels can clearly state what’s in CBD products without obfuscation. And we as an industry can support state-based efforts like Colorado’s CHAMP initiative (Colorado Hemp Advancement & Management Plan), which aims to examine and strengthen the hemp supply chain from cultivation to market. 

Finally, manufacturers can make an effort to exclude unproven and understudied bioactives in their products by avoiding “full spectrum” and “broad spectrum” ingredients. Like the rest of the hemp industry, we believe cannabinoids belong in food, not pharma, but that doesn’t mean they should all come in at once. As responsible manufacturers, it’s incumbent on us to only introduce safe compounds into the food stream, and while we feel confident in CBD’s safety profile, we fear that “full spectrum” and “broad spectrum” products open the door to the uncontrolled inclusion of understudied cannabinoids, including psychotropic substances such as CBN.

What we can do now
The introduction of cannabinoids into the food supply is a watershed event in our history that has been too long in coming, but we stand on the precipice of the unknown. As we press on toward new horizons, it’s essential that we do so with humility and care.

At Caliper Foods, we recognize and respect the risks of operating on the bleeding edge of innovation, and we call on our food industry experience to stamp out uncontrolled variance and unintended inclusion throughout the entire CBD production stream. We can’t avoid the regulatory risks inherent to working with CBD, but we can avoid the quality and safety risks that come when one moves too fast or without care. We can take a “verify, then trust” approach with suppliers, requiring full documentation and third-party testing as part of a rigorous qualification process. We can substantiate all marketing claims with rigorous scientific research performed by credible academic institutions. We can put in the work to validate shelf stability through actual testing. We can take nothing for granted. These ideas shouldn’t be novel; they should simply be the norm for a good, ethical CPG company.

The signals are loud and clear that customers and retailers want CBD products they can trust, and the market has huge potential for players who lead the way in providing reliable, consistent products that meet consumer expectations day-after-day and month-after-month. We need a regulated environment that prioritizes clear standards of identity, honest and accurate labeling, controlled manufacturing processes, and validated analytical methods. As former FDA Director Scott Gottlieb has urged, we can “help establish the stable market for hemp-derived CBD envisioned by lawmakers,” and deliver safe, trustworthy, and helpful products to consumers eagerly awaiting them.

About Caliper Foods:
Caliper Foods is making safe and standardized CBD accessible to everyone through both our business-to-business arm, Caliper Commercial Ingredients, and our direct-to-consumer arm, Caliper Consumer Goods, maker of Caliper CBD. Our commitments to credibility, science, and consistency deliver superior cannabinoid experiences for both manufacturers and consumers, because we believe that everyone deserves access to the best CBD has to offer.

(1) Information Resources Inc. / BDS Analytics, August 2019

Jeremy Goldstein