Ash and adulteration…Should we be worried?

The wildfires that ripped through the West Coast this year left some of the most high-value crops in the area severely damaged or destroyed. The Glass Fire impacted 23 wineries in California’s famous wine region, Napa Valley, and in Oregon, now known as a big cannabis-producing region, 17 percent of grow sites were destroyed in the many fires that tore through the state around the same time.

The loss of all this wine and weed is a huge blow to producers in itself. But, for the crops that survived the fire, there may be more problems in store.

It wasn’t just trees that burned in these fires, after all…It was houses and the computers, dishwashers, toys, clothes and who knows what else. In the Rogue Valley in southern Oregon, the Almeda fire burned around 2,800 urban structures. Are all of these volatile compounds released in fires like these now settling on the surrounding farms? After all, cannabis flowers are quite sticky, and phenols can bind to grape sugars, and in turn are released during fermentation.

In a world upended by all the chaos and despair of 2020, wine and weed provide a welcome respite for many. But while providing helpful relaxation, are these substances at the same time providing a dose of harmful chemicals?

Food safety is a big deal for farmers. Producers don’t want to get their customers sick. They also don’t want to run into any legal problems. In all states and under federal law, it is illegal to sell “adulterated” food. What does adulterated mean? Legal enthusiasts can consult 21 USC 342(a), but for the rest of us, let’s summarize: A food item containing “any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health” may fit the definition as does anything that is “filthy, putrid, or decomposed” in whole or in part.

Do cannabis and wine producers need to worry that the ash and smoke on their products renders them filthy, and unsafe and illegal to sell?

The annoying answer is…It depends. Research conducted after the Santa Rosa urban fires a few years ago indicated that local food crops were safe to eat. (See link to research here.) However, the research report also indicated that it is very case-specific. Just because the crops seemed to be mostly ok following those fires, it doesn’t mean that’s always the case.

It appears that just because there is something that may sound filthy or dirty on an agricultural product, it doesn’t mean it automatically is adulterated and illegal to sell. Take the case of the spotted wing drosophila. As any berry grower in the United States now knows, invert a raspberry these days and you’re likely to find a few wriggling larvae who are presumably thrilled at their capacity to destroy appetites for berries nationwide. But, it’s not necessarily “adulterated.” Human stomachs can apparently handle bug larvae quite well – it doesn’t tend to make us sick. However, even though it may not be illegal to sell, it may not be easy to sell. Berry farmers with larvae on their products may find it hard to sell berries containing these larvae, because, well, Gross!

Just like with the berry growers, cannabis and wine growers could have a marketing problem on their hands, even if there’s no legal problem.

Fires and pest invasions will likely worsen in frequency and degree. It will become more important than ever for farmers to be able to provide safe food products, whether wine, cannabis or raspberries. Farmers will need the support to be able to do this through access to affordable and accurate testing.  We also need to continue a dialogue with consumers about the realities of agriculture in an ever-changing environment. We’re here to play our role as legal educators, and thank you for being at the table with us!