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Food Safety

Dozens of cannabis-derived products recalled since 2021, with newer CBD items seen as 'problematic'

CBD oil and hemp whiskey are among products which have been recalled.

SINCE THE START of 2021, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has issued over a dozen alerts about the presence of delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol – or THC as it’s more commonly known – in different products.

Two of these were issued in the past few weeks alone, affecting six CBD products derived from cannabis which are believed to be useful for treating some health conditions.

CBD and THC are ostensibly similar: both are ‘cannabinoids’ – chemicals contained in cannabis plants which join the cannabinoid receptors in the human body and produce certain effects. However, those effects can be very different.

In recent years, CBD has become a popular natural remedy for many common ailments like anxiety and pain, but it has not been authorised as a medicinal product by the Health Products Regulatory Authority. It is generally not assumed to be psychoactive. 

In contrast, THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in the drug, and produces effects that people seek when they use cannabis recreationally.

The FSAI has warned about delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, for a while: two years ago, it conducted a ‘national survey’ of 38 CBD products and later said that many consumers were “at risk” and being “misled” because some products contained THC.

But what’s led to the uptick in food alerts about CBD products containing THC since then?

In January, a brand of CBD oil and certain batches of artisan coffee derived from hemp were each recalled because they contained levels of THC which were higher than European standards.

Eleven similar alerts were issued last year for dozens of products including CBD oil, CBD paste, hemp juice powder, hemp tea, food supplements and even hemp whiskey and gin.

These followed investigations carried out by the FSAI alongside inspectors from the HSE.

“At the moment, CBD products are kind of newish and that’s why there seems to be problems with some of them,” Jane Ryder of the FSAI told The Journal.

“The discovery of products with THC in them is part of ongoing monitoring that happens all the time.”

Unlike THC, CBD is not considered a ‘narcotic drug’ under European law. Cannabis plants can be bred so that they contain higher levels of CBD and only small levels of THC, helping to bypass laws in countries where the drug is illegal.

But legislation also allows there to be traces of THC in certain plants, even where they are not intended to be grown for recreational use.

In recent years, the European Parliament voted to define ‘hemp’ – cannabis grown specifically for industrial or medicinal use - as a cannabis plant which contains 0.3 percent THC or less.

That means some THC may still be found in CBD products on the Irish market, which has led to concerns within the FSAI. 

“Undeclared THC in these products can pose a risk for drivers, as well as athletes who may be buying and consuming these products without knowing they contain a psychotropic substance,” the authority said in its 2020 warning.

The European Food Safety Authority has acknowledged that some products will inevitably contain levels of THC, and set a limit on the amount allowed in CBD products: one microgram – a millionth of a gram – per kilogramme of a consumer’s body weight.

All of the products subject to recent alerts by the FSAI were found to breach these limits.

But given the illegal status of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act, does that mean that products which breach THC limits are illegal?

“This is where there’s a funny line between us and the gardaí,” Jane Ryder of the FSAI says.

“We have to go off advice from the European Food Safety Authority and so we have to be careful that we’re not stepping into the ‘zone’ of enforcement under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

“There’s a working group that involves ourselves, Gardaí and Revenue about all these products, and we would work with them a good bit.”

Ryder adds that although drug enforcement isn’t the remit of the FSAI, the authority and gardaí both agree that THC should not be in CBD products at all.

The FSAI has so far issued recalls on 90 different CBD products since 2019. There will likely be many more recalls over the coming months and years.

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