The track will have presentations discussing food safety planning in cannabis manufacturing, HACCP, GMPs, regulatory compliance and supply chain issues among other areas. One particular topic of interest in the quality and safety of cannabis products is laboratory testing. At the event this year, leading laboratory accreditation bodies in the country will sit together on a panel titled Accreditation, Regulation & Certification: Cannabis Labs and Production.
Laboratories that are new to the industry and looking to get accredited should be aware of the new ISO/IEC 17025:2017 standard, which was released last year. According to Tracy Szerszen, labs that have already been accredited to the 2005 version will be required to transition to the 2017 version by November 29, 2020. “This can be done in conjunction with routine assessments scheduled in 2019 and 2020,” says Szerszen. “However, laboratories are cautioned to transition within a reasonable timeframe to avoid their 17025: 2005 certificate from lapsing prior to the transition deadline. Some of the changes to the standard include but are not limited to: the re-alignment of clauses similar to ISO 9001:2015 and other ISO industry standards, modifications to reporting and decision rules, the addition of risked based thinking and a new approach to managing complaints.” Szerszen, along with the other panelists, will go much more in-depth on changes to the new ISO 17025 and other topics during the panel at the Food Safety Consortium.
Some of the other topics the panel will discuss include:
ISO/IEC 17025 –what’s expected, benefits of accreditation, common deficiencies, updates to the new 17025 standard
Standards available for production facilities-GMPs & GFSI standards
How standards can be used to safeguard the quality of production and safety requirements
An open discussion with panelists from leading accreditation bodies on the state of cannabis lab testing
According to Chris Gunning, many states are requiring accreditation to ISO/IEC 17025, the standard used throughout the world in many other high-profile industries such as the testing of food and pharmaceuticals, environmental testing, and biosafety testing. “In an industry where there are few standard methods, where one hears that you can ‘pay to play,’ and where there are ‘novice’ laboratories popping up with little experience in operating a testing laboratory, it is extremely important to have an experienced, independent, 3rd party accrediting body evaluating the laboratory,” says Gunning. “This process confirms their adherence to appropriate quality management system standards, standard methods or their own internally developed methods, and can verify that those methods produce valid results. Ultimately, the process of accreditation gives the public confidence that a testing laboratory is meeting their state’s requirements and therefore consumers have access to a quality product.” He says most states with legal cannabis recognize the need for product testing by a credentialed laboratory.
Another important topic that the panel will address is the role of food safety standards in the cannabis industry. Lauren Maloney says cannabis product manufacturers should consider GMP and HACCP certifications for their businesses. “Food safety is important to the cannabis industry because although individual states have mandated several food safety requirements there still considerable risks involved in the production of cannabis products,” says Lauren Maloney. “Consumers want the assurance that the cannabis products are safe and therefore should be treated like a food product. Because FDA does not have oversight of these production facilities, third party certification is essential to ensure these facilities implement a robust food safety system.”
77 laboratories from 18 states and two foreign countries participated in the bi-annual Emerald Test, an inter-laboratory comparison and proficiency testing (PT) program. The program is a tool for labs to demonstrate their competence to existing clients, potential customers, regulatory agencies and accreditation bodies.
Overall, the company shipped 314 PT samples, with the majority in a hemp or hemp oil matrix. According to the press release, the new PTs including potency in hemp oil, STEC, Aspergillus Mold and Mycotoxins attracted a good deal of labs. “Many laboratories have been regular participants which speaks volumes about their commitment to quality assurance, regulatory compliance, and consumer safety,” says Ken Groggel, director of Emerald Scientific’s proficiency testing program. “The collegial attitude of open communication and shared experience increases our knowledge and ensures continued success for all involved. Our goal is to establish an industry benchmark for cannabis testing while providing valuable feedback to each laboratory’s quality assurance system.”
This marks the first time the Emerald Test used two potency PTs- the original in solution and a new hemp oil matrix. “Of the 62 labs that participated in the Potency PT, 48 took the PT in solution with 47 receiving an Emerald Badge,” reads the press release. “Another 23 labs took the PT in hemp oil, with 22 awarded an Emerald Badge. Nine labs took both PTs.”
39 labs took PTs in APC, Total Coliform, E. coli, Enterobacteriaceae and Yeast/Mold and 38 of those received the badge. 45 reported results for Salmonella and 42 of them were able to correctly identify the contaminated sample. 12 labs took the Aspergillus Mold PT and 11 of them were awarded the badge. 24 participated in the pesticides PT and 19 of them met criteria for the badge, while four of them did not report results.
The press release noted that the pesticides and residual solvents in hemp oil PTs were some of the more challenging tests in the spring program. 43 labs reported results for the residual solvents in hemp oil PT and only 31 received badges. The terpenes in hemp oil PT was also a challenging test where 21 labs participated and only 11 received the badge, marking the lowest passing rate of all the PTs.
The advisory panel for The Emerald Test consists of chemists, accreditation providers, laboratory owners, and other industry experts to keep it representative of industry needs. “The Emerald Test is the most comprehensive testing program in the world for the cannabis industry, but as the market grows more testing will be needed,” says Groggel. “We intend to continue introducing new proficiency tests while expanding the menu of matrix choices in response to laboratory requests and regulatory requirements.”
According to the press release, their fall program is open for enrollment until today. Testing begins in mid-October.
According to the press release, the two organizations hope to promote “foundational standards for quality control testing and regulatory guidelines that promote product safety.” Both organizations will advocate for the adoption of industry standards they deem appropriate for recreational and medical cannabis as well as hemp testing in the United States.
Michael Bronstein, executive director of ATACH, says there is an urgent need for open-source consensus standards and standard test methods for cannabis testing. “In an industry that lacks standard test methods and where testing is such a crucial part of the regulatory landscape, the need for open-source consensus standards is especially significant,” says Bronstein. “The development and adoption of standard test methods for cannabis testing is essential in ensuring consistency between laboratories, encouraging uniformity in state testing regulation, and providing a safe and consistent product to consumers.”
The press release also states that A2LA and ATACH seek to “develop regulation and adopt industry standards with goals of advancing and professionalizing the industry.”
LabVantage Solutions, known in other testing industries as a leader in laboratory information management systems (LIMS), has launched their own cannabis-specific LIMS. Unveiled at the Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, OR, the purpose-built software is designed specifically for cannabis testing and certification.
Here are a few key highlights of their system, taken from the press release:
Available through perpetual licensing or SaaS
One platform for all tests, instruments, sample information, and results data, with option to embed ELN, LES, and other modules
Registers sample requests, including a portal for remote requests from growers and distributors
Fully audited sample lifecycle and audit trail
Certificates of Analysis customized for local regulatory requirements
Includes American Herbal Pharmacopoeia® tests for Cannabis Inforescense.
LabVantage says their system can support ISO/IEC 17025 compliance, ISO 9001:2015, 21 CFR Part 11 and Annex 11 and GLPs as well. According to Bob Voelkner, vice president of sales and marketing, it has a very open architecture as well as web services technology, which allows for integration with METRC and other traceability software platforms. “We know the testing methodologies these labs use, so the customer doesn’t have to create that from scratch,” says Voelkner. “This is meant to be out of the box and ready-to-use, so the customer can get up and running with minimal lag time.” LabVantage has actually been a provider of LIMS solutions for over 30 years and they serve a broad range of lab types.
Voelkner says they’ve been working with clients at cannabis labs over the past few years to configure their LIMS for this space specifically. “The lab managers can modify workflows on their own without having to write code,” says Voelkner. “We have a well-established solution with a good track record, that’s been around for a while and is proven. Some other players that are brand new to the space may be new to LIMS and that may not be a good thing. We are a market leader in the global LIMS space with a proven product that is very well established and very powerful.” Voelkner adds that lab managers get to own their data, not LabVantage. “You own the data. It is your database and it is proprietary to you. It is yours to use as you see fit.”
Lab managers have the option to configure the system to adapt to new compliance issues themselves, or work with the LabVantage professional services team to build it out further. “This particular space is new and emerging, it is pretty dynamic — we see a lot of change happening,” says Voelkner. “We believe this space needs a highly flexible platform and this is a proven technology solution with a lot of configurability built into it.”
In the last four articles, I have outlined areas that impact your operations as they apply to laboratory quality programs. But this article will take a different path. It will focus on protecting your crop and brand along with any business that utilizes your crop, such as dispensaries or edible manufactures in the court of public opinion.
Now, the elephant in the room for cannabis companies is the difference between rules written by the state and their enforcement by the state. There are many anecdotal stories out there that can be used as case studies in identifying ways to protect your brand. Remember, consumers and the media caught them, not the regulators.
Cheating in the cannabis industry: growers, dispensaries, edibles manufactures, etc. This includes:
Finding laboratories that will produce results that the client wants (higher potency numbers)
Not testing for a particular contaminant that may be present in the cannabis product.
Selling failed crops on the gray or black market.
Claiming to regulators that the state rules are unclear and cannot be followed (e.g. So, give me another chance, officer)
So why should you be worried? Because, even if the state where you operate fails to enforce its own rules, the final end-user of your product will hold you accountable! If you produce any cannabis product and fail to consider these end-users, you will be found out in the court of public opinion by either the media or by the even more effective word of mouth (e.g. Social Media).
So, let’s take a look at some recent examples of these problems:
Each of these reports lists contamination by microbial stains or pesticides as being rampant within the California market whose products are used for medical or recreational use. Just imagine the monetary losses these cannabis businesses faced for their recalled cannabis product when they got caught. Remember, consumers and the media caught them, not the regulators.Institute a quality program in your business immediately.
How can you be caught? There are many different ways:
So, what should you do to produce an acceptable product and provide reasonable protection to your cannabis business? Institute a quality program in your business immediately. This quality program will include areas of quality assurance and quality control for at least these areas.
Processing or formulating
Training of staff
Setting up and supporting these programs requires that your upper management impose both a rigorous training program and make employee compliance mandatory. Otherwise, your business will have an unreasonable risk of failure in the future.
Further information on preparing and instituting these types of quality assurance and quality control programs within your business can be found at the author’s website.
Can the laboratory accurately analyze sample products like my sample?
Can the laboratory reproduce the sample results for my type of sample?
Now let’s discuss the most important QC test that will protect your crop and business. That QC sample is the Matrix Sample. In the last article in this series, you were introduced to many QC samples. The Matrix Sample and Duplicate were some of them. Take a look back at Part 3 to familiarize yourself with the definitions.
The key factors of these QC sample types are:
Your sample is used to determine if the analysis used by the laboratory can extract the analyte that is being reported back to you. This is performed by the following steps:
Your sample is analyzed by the laboratory as received.
Then a sub-sample of your sample is spiked with a known concentration of the analyte you are looking for (e.g. pesticides, bacteria, organic chemicals, etc.).
The difference between the sample with and without a spike indicates whether the laboratory can even find the analyte of concern and whether the percent recovery is acceptable.
Examples of failures are from my experiences:
Laboratory 1 spiked a known amount of a pesticide into a wastewater matrix. (e.g. Silver into final treatment process water). The laboratory failed to recover any of the spiked silver. Therefore the laboratory results for these types of sample were not reporting any silver, but silver may be present. This is where laboratory results would be false negatives and the laboratory method may not work on the matrix (your sample) correctly. .
Laboratory 2 ran an analysis for a toxic compound (e.g. Cyanide in final waste treatment discharge). A known amount of cyanide was spiked into a matrix sample and 4 times the actual concentration of that cyanide spike was recovered. This is where laboratory results would be called false positives and the laboratory method may not work on the matrix (your sample) correctly.
Can the laboratory reproduce the results they reported to you?
The laboratory needs to repeat the matrix spike analysis to provide duplicate results. Then a comparison of the results from the first matrix spike with its duplicate results will show if the laboratory can duplicate their test on your sample.
If the original matrix spike result and the duplicate show good agreement (e.g. 20% relative percent difference or lower). Then you can be relatively sure that the result you obtained from the laboratory is true.
But, if the original matrix spike result and the duplicate do not show good agreement (e.g. greater than 20% relative percent difference). Then you can be sure that the result you obtained from the laboratory is not true and you should question the laboratory’s competence.
Now, the question is why a laboratory would not perform these matrix spike and duplicate QC samples? Well, the following may apply:
These matrix samples take too much time.
These matrix samples add a cost that the laboratory cannot recover.
These matrix samples are too difficult for the laboratory staff to perform.
Most importantly: Matrix samples show the laboratory cannot perform the analyses correctly on the matrix.
So, what types of cannabis matrices are out there? Some examples include bud, leaf, oils, extracts and edibles. Those are some of the matrices and each one has their own testing requirements. So, what should you require from your laboratory?
The laboratory must use your sample for both a matrix spike and a duplicate QC sample.
The percent recovery of both the matrix spike and the duplicate will be between 80% and 120%. If either of the QC samples fail, then you should be notified immediately and the samples reanalyzed.
If the relative percent difference between the matrix spike and the duplicate will be 20% or less. If the QC samples fail, then you should be notified immediately and the samples should be reanalyzed.
The impact of questionable laboratory results on your business with failing or absent matrix spike and the duplicate QC samples can be prevented. It is paramount that you hold the laboratory responsible to produce results that are representative of your sample matrix and that are true.
The next article will focus on how your business will develop a quality plan for your laboratory service provider with a specific focus on the California Code Of Regulations, Title 16, Division 42. Bureau Of Cannabis Control requirements.
The press release says this makes EVIO Labs Massachusetts one of only a few operating and accredited testing laboratories serving the state’s medical cannabis industry. With recreational sales coming shortly to the state, EVIO is preparing for a higher demand in their lab testing services. “We are very proud of all of the teams’ hard work that resulted in this advanced accreditation,” says James Kocis, lab director of EVIO Labs Massachusetts. “With the state-mandated laboratory regulations, EVIO upholds the high standards of testing and plays a pivotal role in ensuring consumer safety and confidence in the states burgeoning marijuana market.”
According to Adam Gouker, general manager at A2LA, EVIO Labs Massachusetts, based in Southborough, MA, is the first cannabis laboratory they accredited in the state. “A2LA is excited to expand our cannabis accreditation program into yet another state, promoting the value of independent third-party accreditation to support quality products in the industry,” says Gouker. “Having the opportunity to work with a prominent name in the industry such as EVIO Labs and assess their exceptional Massachusetts laboratory has been an additional bonus.”
According to the A2LA press release, by achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, EVIO Labs Massachusetts demonstrates that they “have management, quality and technical systems in place to ensure accurate and reliable analyses, as well as proper administrative processes to ensure that all aspects related to the sample, the analysis, and the reporting are standardized, measured, and monitored.” It also requires that personnel are competent to perform each analysis.
Save the Dates for the 6th Annual Food Safety Consortium conference in Schaumburg, IL, a summit of Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) industry experts and government officials. The 2018 Food Safety Consortium will have a cannabis track this year where topics will include: regulations, standards, cannabis food safety & quality and much more.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s opinions based on his experience working in the laboratory industry. This is an opinion piece in a series of articles designed to highlight the potential problems that clients may run into with labs.
Do not be discouraged by the analytical jargon of the next few articles. I suggest that you go immediately to the conclusions to get the meat of this article and then read the rest of it to set you on the path to see the forest for the trees.
QC in a laboratory consists of a series of samples run by the laboratory to determine the accuracy and precision of a specific batch of samples. So, to start off, let’s look at the definitions of accuracy and precision.QC Charts can provide a detailed overview of laboratory performance in a well-run laboratory.
Accuracy: estimate of how close a measured value is to the true value; includes expressions for bias and precision.
Precision: a measure of the degree of agreement among replicate analyses of a sample.
A reputable laboratory will measure the Accuracy and Precision of QC samples in a batch of user samples and record these values in both the analytical test report issued to the user and in control charts kept by the laboratory. These control charts can be reviewed by the user if they are requested by the user. These control charts record:
Accuracy (means) chart: The accuracy chart for QC samples (e.g., LRB, CCV, LFBs, LFMs, and surrogates) is constructed from the average and standard deviation of a specified number of measurements of the analyte of interest.
Precision (range) chart: The precision chart also is constructed from the average and standard deviation of a specified number of measurements (e.g., %RSD or RPD) for replicate of duplicate analyses of the analyte of interest.
Now, let’s look at what should be run in a sample batch for cannabis analyses. The typical cannabis sample would have analyses for cannabinoids, terpenes, microbiological, organic compounds, pesticides and heavy metals.
Each compound listed above would require a specific validated analytical method for the type of matrix being analyzed. Examples of specific matrixes are:
Cannabis buds, leaves, oil
Edibles, such as Chocolates, Baked Goods, Gummies, Candies and Lozenges, etc.
Topicals, such as lotions, creams, etc.
Running QC analyses does not guarantee that the user’s specific sample in the batch was analyzed correctly.
Also, both ISO 17025-2005 and ISO 17025-2017 require the use of a validated method.
ISO 17025-2005: When it is necessary to use methods not covered by standard methods, these shall be subject to agreement with the customer and shall include a clear specification of the customer’s requirements and the purpose of the test and/or calibration. The method developed shall have been validated appropriately before use.
ISO 17025-2017: The laboratory shall validate non-standard methods, laboratory-developed methods and standard methods used outside their intended scope or otherwise modified. The validation shall be as extensive as is necessary to meet the needs of the given application or field of application.
The laboratory must have on file for user review the following minimum results in an analytical statistical report validating their method:
limit of quantitation,
precision,The user must look beyond the QC data provided in their analytical report or laboratory control charts.
linearity (or other calibration model),
confirmation of identity
limit of detection,
The interpretation of an analytical statistical report will be discussed in detail in the next article. Once the validated method has been selected for the specific matrix, then a sample batch is prepared for analysis.
Sample Batch: A sample batch is defined as a minimum of one (1) to a maximum of twenty (20) analytical samples run during a normal analyst’s daily shift. A LRB, LFB, LFM, LFMD, and CCV will be run with each sample batch. Failure of any QC sample in sample batch will require a corrective action and may require the sample batch to be reanalyzed. The definitions of the specific QC samples are described later.
The typical sample batch would be set as:
Instrument Start Up
Calibration Standards, Quadratic
Sample used for LFM/LFMD
Samples (First half of batch)
Samples (Second half of batch)
The QC samples are defined as:
Calibration Blank: A volume of reagent water acidified with the same acid matrix as in the calibration standards. The calibration blank is a zero standard and is used to calibrate the ammonia analyzer
Continuing Calibration Verification (CCV): A calibration standard, which is analyzed periodically to verify the accuracy of the existing calibration for those analytes.
Calibration Standard: A solution prepared from the dilution of stock standard solutions. These solutions are used to calibrate the instrument response with respect to analyte concentration
Laboratory Fortified Blank (LFB): An aliquot of reagent water or other blank matrix to which known quantities of the method analytes and all the preservation compounds are added. The LFB is processed and analyzed exactly like a sample, and its purpose is to determine whether the methodology is in control, and whether the laboratory is capable of making accurate and precise measurements.
Laboratory Fortified Sample Matrix/Duplicate (LFM/LFMD) also called Matrix Spike/Matrix Spike Duplicate (MS/MSD): An aliquot of an environmental sample to which known quantities of ammonia is added in the laboratory. The LFM is analyzed exactly like a sample, and its purpose is to determine whether the sample matrix contributes bias to the analytical results. The background concentrations of the analytes in the sample matrix must be determined in a separate aliquot and the measured values in the LFM corrected for background concentrations (Section 9.1.3).Laboratories must validate their methods.
Laboratory Reagent Blank (LRB): A volume of reagent water or other blank matrix that is processed exactly as a sample including exposure to all glassware, equipment, solvents and reagents, sample preservatives, surrogates and internal standards that are used in the extraction and analysis batches. The LRB is used to determine if the method analytes or other interferences are present in the laboratory environment, the reagents, or the apparatus.
Once a sample batch is completed, then some of the QC results are provided in the user’s analytical report and all of the QC results should be recorded in the control charts identified in the accuracy and precision section above.
But having created a batch and performing QC sample analyses, the validity of the user’s analytical results is still not guaranteed. Key conclusion points to consider are:
Laboratories must validate their methods.
Running QC analyses does not guarantee that the user’s specific sample in the batch was analyzed correctly.
QC Charts can provide a detailed overview of laboratory performance in a well-run laboratory.
The user must look beyond the QC data provided in their analytical report or laboratory control charts. Areas to look at will be covered in the next few articles in this series.
Now that governments are legalizing cannabis around the world, the question looms for cannabis businesses seeking legitimacy in the new industry: what safety standards should apply? This question is more difficult as different jurisdictions grapple with defining and implementing legal requirements and struggle to keep up with the pace of growth.
For visionary cannabis business, it makes sense to anticipate requirements – not only from governments, but also from consumers and partners. Most regulations currently focus on security and basic health issues but, in the long-term, the industry that may offer the best model for cannabis businesses isn’t pharmaceuticals, but food. Cannabis (especially edibles) share similar hazards and traceability challenges with food products, so taking the lead from the food industry will be much more applicable and could offer greater benefits.
Companies that achieve the highest and most flexible certification will enjoy a crucial competitive advantage when it comes to winning market share, popularity and consumer trust. Let’s take a quick look at the different options of food safety (and quality) certifications that cannabis businesses may consider. But first, let’s clarify two important definitions that are necessary to understand the food industry.
Basic Concepts from the Food Industry
The first acronym you should be aware of is GFSI, the Global Food Safety Initiative. GFSI is a food industry-driven global collaboration body created to advance food safety. When it comes to understanding GFSI, the important part to note is that certifications recognized by GFSI (like SQF, FSSC 22000, and BRC) are universally accepted. Companies operating under GFSI-recognized certifications open the most doors to the most markets, providing the highest potential for growth. For this reason, cannabis companies should be aware of and seriously consider seeking GFSI certifications
Secondly, many food safety programs are built around Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, or HACCP. While many people may talk about HACCP like it’s a certification in and of itself, it is not actually a certification like the others on this list, but rather a methodology that helps companies systematically identify and control biological, chemical, and physical hazards that may arise during food production, handling, and distribution. Companies that adopt this methodology end up with a HACCP plan, which must then be followed at all times to avoid and address health and safety issues. It’s often required for food businesses and is generally required in most of the world, except where ISO 22000 is more common, primarily in Europe and countries whose primary export market is European. Since HACCP plans are also incorporated into most of the other achievable certifications, developing a HACCP program early will build a strong foundation for higher levels of certification.
Certifications for the Cannabis Industry
Now that we understand the basics of GFSI and HACCP, we can see how the certifications that have been developed by and for the food industry may apply to cannabis companies – and which you should consider necessary for your business.
GMP: Good Manufacturing Practice Certification
GMP (or sometimes cGMP) certification requires that companies abide by a set of good manufacturing processes for food and beverage products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, dietary supplements and medical devices. Since it really only covers basic sanitation and employee hygiene, it is considered the lowest level of certification in the industry. It is not recognized by GFSI, but GFSI does require all the standard benchmarks of a GMP be met before granting GFSI certification.
While GMP certification is often required, it is far below the standard that should be upheld by any serious businesses. It doesn’t cover many of the different types of hazards associated with food production – that I have argued will become increasingly relevant to cannabis producers – and doesn’t provide a systematic approach to identifying and controlling hazards like a HACCP program would. It’s really just about providing the basic procedures and checks to ensure that the facility is clean and that employees aren’t contaminating the products.
Final Verdict: Recommended, but as the bare minimum. GMP is not sufficient on its own to adequately control the risk of recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks, and it limits a company’s market potential because it lacks the GFSI worldwide stamp of approval.
Some companies consider GMP certification a good place to start if you’re on a tight deadline for distribution in markets where only GMP is required by regulators. I would argue that striving for the minimum standards will be costly in the long run. Health, safety and quality standards are the foundations upon which winning companies are built. It’s critical to develop a corporate culture that will lead to GFSI-recognized programs without major organizational overhaul. Start on the right foot and set your sights higher – obtain a certification that will stand the test of time and avoid the pain and risks of trying to change entrenched behaviors.
SQF: Safe Quality Food Program Certification
SQF is my number one recommendation as the best certification for the cannabis industry. One of the most common certifications in North America, SQF is a food safety management system recognized by retailers and consumers alike. It is administered by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and, importantly, recognized by GFSI, which gives companies a huge competitive edge. SQF focuses on the whole supply chain.
SQF was also the first to develop a cannabis program and is currently the leader in this market segment. It is also the scheme that best integrates food safety with quality. Since it is recognized worldwide, SQF provides the greatest leverage to accelerate a company’s growth. Once obtained, products with SQF certification can often jump the queue to enter different regulatory markets.
Final verdict: Highly recommended. A cannabis company with an SQF certification has the greatest advantage because it offers the broadest worldwide reach and keeps companies a step ahead of competitors. It’s also achievable – just this past April, Curaleaf Florida ostensibly became the first cannabis company to achieve SQF certification. It is tough, but fair and practical.
Other Certification Standards
SQF is the top certification that should be considered by cannabis companies, especially outside of Europe. However, the food industry has several other major types of standards that, at this time, have limited relevance to the cannabis industry today. Let’s take a quick look.
When considering GFSI-recognized programs, the main choice for food companies is between SQF, which we’ve covered, and BRC (the British Retail Consortium Certification). BRC has the most in common with SQF but, while SQF was originally developed for processed foods, BRC was developed in the UK for meat products. Today, they are quite similar, but BRC doesn’t focus quite as much on the quality component as SQF does. While BRC could be a good option, they don’t have a program for cannabis and, thus far, do not appear to be as friendly toward the cannabis industry.The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages
Across the pond, there are a few other certification standards that are more common than SQF. One of these is ISO 22000, which is the certification for the food-related standard created by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Europe. It is not recognized by GFSI but is the primary system used in Europe. If your market is exclusively in the EU, it might be a good choice for you in the future. However, to date, there is no indication that any cannabis company has achieved ISO 22000 certification. Some cannabis companies have attained certification for other ISO standards like ISO 9001:2015, which specifies requirements for quality control systems, and ISO/IEC 17025 for laboratory testing. These are generally more relevant for the pharmaceutical industry than food and beverage, but still apply to cannabis.
There is the perception that cannabis is more accepted in EU countries like the Netherlands, but the regulatory attitude to cannabis is complicated. In the Netherlands, for example, cannabis isn’t actually legal – “coffee shops” fall under a toleration policy that doesn’t include regulation. Medical cannabis in the Netherlands is all produced by one supplier and several countries in the EU allow for licensed distribution and import, but not domestic production. Various EU countries are trying to keep up with the legalization trend, however. The Czech Republic, Germany, and others all recently introduced legislation for domestic production of cannabis for medical use. For companies with their eye on the EU, it is crucial to watch which regulatory requirements will be implemented in each market and how.
The last certification standard to mention is the result of a compromise between ISO and the more HACCP oriented programs like SQF. FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification) tries to address the gaps between ISO 22000 and GFSI-recognized certifications by introducing another component called PAS 220. Since it is recognized by GFSI, FSSC 22000 is starting to get more traction in the food industry because it makes products a bit easier to export to the EU. FSSC 22000 satisfies the EU ISO standards but isn’t as closely tied to HACCP. We will be keeping an eye on this one.
The food industry has a lot to offer cannabis companies that are anticipating future regulatory changes and market advantages – but it’s difficult for cannabis companies to understand all the options available and how each apply to their specific products. While markets adjust beyond the preliminary issue of legality, it’s crucial for companies to look forward and comply with safety and quality standards like SQF. Companies who strive for SQF certification (or other GFSI-recognized certifications as they become available) will find themselves far better prepared to seize market share as cannabis markets blossom.
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