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Dr. Ed Askew
From The Lab

Quality Plans for Lab Services: Managing Risks as a Grower, Processor or Dispensary, Part 2

By Dr. Edward F. Askew
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Dr. Ed Askew

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. 


In the previous article, I discussed the laboratory’s first line of defense (e.g. certification or accreditation) when a grower, processor or dispensary (user) questions a laboratory result. Now let us look behind this paperwork wall to the laboratory culture the user will encounter once their complaint is filtered past the first line of defense.

It is up to the client (processor, grower or dispensary) to determine the quality of the lab they use.In an ISO 17025 (2005 or 2017) and TNI accreditation, the laboratory must be organized into management, quality and technical areas. Each area can overlap as in the ISO 17025-2017 standard or be required to remain as separate sections in the laboratory as in the ISO 17025-2005 or TNI 2009 standards. ISO 17025 standards (e.g. 2005 and 2017) specifically require a separation of monetary benefits for laboratory results as it applies to the technical staff. This “conflict of interest” (CoI) is not always clearly defined in the laboratory’s day-to-day practices.

One example that I have experienced with this CoI separation violation goes back to my days as a laboratory troubleshooter in the 1990s. I was called into a laboratory that was failing to meet their Department of Defense (DoD) contract for volatile organic hydrocarbon analyses (VOAs) of soil samples by purge trap-gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy. I was required to “fix” the problem. What I determined was:

  • The analytical chemists performing the VOAs analyses were high school graduates with no coursework in chemistry or biology.
  • There was no training program in place for these analysts in instrument use, instrument troubleshooting and interpretation of the analytical results.
  • The only training the analysts received was for simple instrument set-up and basic instrument computer software use. (e.g. Push this button and send results to clerks)
  • Clerks with a high school degree and no analytical chemistry training in the business office generated the final reports and certified them as accurate and complete.

None of the staff was technically competent to perform any in-depth VOAs analytical work nor was the clerical staff competent to certify the results reported.

When I pointed out these discrepancies to the laboratory management, they declined to make any changes. The laboratory management had a direct monetary interest in completing all analyses at the lowest costs within the time limit set by DoD. If the laboratory did not complete the analyses as per the DoD contract, DoD would cancel the contract and not pay the laboratory.

The DoD, in a “Double Blind” test sample, later caught this laboratory.. A Double Blind test sample is used to check to see if the laboratory is performing the tests correctly. The laboratory does not know it is a test sample. So if the laboratory is cheating, they will be caught.This does not mean that all laboratories have staff or management issues

Once the laboratory was caught by DoD with the Double Blind, laboratory management claimed they were unaware of this behavior and management fired all analytical staff performing VOAs and clerical staff reporting the VOAs results to show DoD that it was a rogue group of individuals and not the laboratory management. The fired staff members were denied unemployment benefits as they were fired with cause. So, the moral to this story is if the analytical staff and specifically the clerical staff had wanted to hold the laboratory management accountable for this conflict of interest, they may have been fired, but without cause. The staff would have kept their reputation for honesty and collected unemployment benefits.

I have witnessed the “CoI above repeatedly over the last 30+ years both in laboratories where I have been employed and as a consultant. The key laboratory culture problems that lead to these CoI issues can be distilled into the following categories:

  • Financial CoI: In the financial CoI, the laboratory management must turn out so many analytical test results per day to remain financially solvent. The philosophical change that comes over management is that the laboratory is not producing scientific results, but is instead just churning out tests. Therefore, the more tests the laboratory produces, the more money it makes. Any improvement in test output is to be looked upon favorably and anything that diminishes test output is bad. So, to put this in simple terms: “The laboratory will perform the analyses quickly and get the report sent to the user so the laboratory can be paid. Anything that slows this production down will not be tolerated!” To maximize the Return on Investment (RoI) for the laboratory, management will employ staff that outwardly mirrors this philosophy.
  • I Need This Job CoI: This is the CoI area that poor quality lab technical staff and clerical staff most readily falls into. As outlined in the example above, both the analytical staff and clerical staff lacked the educational credentials, the technical training to be proficient in the use of the analytical instruments, ability to identify problems performing the analytical methods or complications in reporting analytical results. That means they were locked into the positions they held in this specific laboratory. This lack of marketable skills placed pressure on these staff members to comply with all directives from management. What happened to them in the end was regrettable, but predictable. Management can prey on this type of staff limitation.
  • Lack of Interest or Care CoI: This form of CoI is the malaise that infects poor quality laboratories, but can reach a level in management, quality and technical areas as to produce a culture where everyone goes through the moves, but does not care about anything but receiving their paycheck. In my many years of laboratory troubleshooting this type of CoI is the most difficult to correct. Laboratories where I had to correct this problem required that I had to impress on the staff that their work mattered and that they were valued employees. I had to institute a rigorous training program, require staff quality milestones and enforce the quality of work results. During my years of laboratory troubleshooting, I only had to terminate three laboratory staff for poor work performance. Unfortunately after I left many of these laboratories, management drifted back to the problems listed above and the laboratory malaise returned. This proves that even though a laboratory staff can achieve quality performance, it can quickly dissolve with lax management.

So, what are the conclusions of this article?

  • Laboratory culture can place profit over scientific correctness, accuracy and precision.
  • Laboratory management sets the quality of staff that determines the analytical results and report quality the user receives.
  • Laboratory quality can vary from acceptable performance to unacceptable performance over the lifetime of the laboratory depending on management.
  • This does not mean that all laboratories have staff or management issues. It is up to the client (processor, grower or dispensary) to determine the quality of the lab they use.

The next article in this series will introduce the user to the specific Quality Control (QC) analyses that an acceptable laboratory should perform for the user’s sample. These QC analyses are not always performed by accredited laboratories as the specific state that regulates their cannabis program does not require them. The use of these QC samples is another example of how laboratory’s with poor quality systems construct another paper work wall.

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Soapbox

Quality Assurance for the Cannabis Industry

By Amy Ankrum
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Have you paused to consider that quality assurance is a moving target rather than a destination? It is culture within a company that requires constant improvement and change, rather than the work of a select few to reach one defined end goal. Quality, therefore, is not a box that must simply be checked but an overarching and driving force propelling organizations forward.

For those within the cannabis industry and specifically cannabis testing labs, quality assurance is critical to having a successful and thriving business within the rapidly evolving industry. Dr. Kim Ross, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado in Molecular Biology, and also has worked with multiple cannabis labs, says, “It is not that often that you get a new testing industry born these days and people are scrambling to borrow processes from other industries and apply these to the cannabis industry.” Those within cannabis testing labs are looking towards established industries like water and food testing labs to serve as a quality assurance beacon. Ross elaborates:

The cannabis industry is operating in the absence of federal oversight. If you think about it, the water, food, and pharmaceutical industries have federal oversight. In lieu of that, it is up to states to adopt regulatory practices and enforcement strategies to uphold a level of compliance and data defensibility that these types of regulators have seen in their careers working in the FDA, EPS, NELAC or ISO.

For cannabis testing labs, the stakes are high. First, there is the need to keep up with the rapidly evolving industry climate as more and more states and governing bodies are setting requirements and expectations for quality and compliance. It is in nobody’s best interest to fall behind or be a late adopter to the increasingly regulatory compliance environment.  

Additionally, untrustworthy data sets can have detrimental impacts on people and patients. Medical applications of cannabis require specific results in order to ensure the safety of patients, many of which are immunocompromised. Beyond damage to people and patients, businesses themselves can be hurt if a cannabis testing lab were to present inaccurate or flawed data sets. Ross shared hypothetical examples of potential negative impacts:

 If, for example, you fail a product for microbiology based on false-positive results then it incurs damages to the client because now their product can’t go to market. Additionally, falsely inflated THC results are also a huge problem in the industry, and can result in downstream problems with edible dosing or consumer satisfaction. 

A quality assurance system can minimize risk and maximize adherences to proper procedure, resulting in reliable data. Recalls, product issues and lawsuits cost organizations tremendous amounts of time and money, both to manage the problem at hand and prevent future incidents. Not to mention, the immeasurable damage done to the brand & industry by being viewed as untrustworthy–especially as a consumable product. “Ensuring data defensibility and data integrity protects the laboratory from lawsuits,” says Ross. “That is a really important piece of a quality assurance system for a laboratory.”

One common misconception is viewing quality assurance as a cost center rather than a profitability maximizer. A robust quality assurance system is a competitive advantage–especially for those who are not yet mandated to be compliant to a particular standard, like ISO/IEC 17025, but choose to pursue that accreditation knowing it reflects reliability. In many ways, quality assurance can be summarized as “say what you do, and do what you say”, with a willingness to allow third-party confirmation of your commitment and practice. “Accreditation gives an unbiased stamp of approval that helps ensure data defensibility in the laboratory,” affirms Ross.

Accreditation as a result of quality assurance ultimately leads to reliable and trustworthy data sets. Ross shared:

It might appear to be easy to buy expensive instrumentation, accept samples, and produce data. There are so many ways to do that, some of which are incorrect, and therefore accreditation is really an opportunity to have professionals evaluate methodology and post-analytical data processing to ensure that it is scientifically sound. It is an opportunity for a laboratory to be confident that their processes and reporting procedures are robust and error free.  

Remember: this is a new industry. There aren’t firmly established methods and procedures like other legacy industries. “We are operating in a time and space where there is no standard methodology and that makes oversight by a third party even more important,” shares Ross. When a company opts to pursue accreditation they are indicating a willingness to be honest and transparent with their business processes, procedures, outcomes and data. Accreditation, therefore, is necessary for this emerging industry. Having a robust, inclusive quality assurance system in place will ease and quicken their pursuit of accreditation.The stress on an audit day when there is a digitized system is vastly lower than a system that is printed and physically maintained.

Not all quality assurance systems are created equal. There are still some companies seeking to implement systems that lack the modernization necessary to truly propel them forward towards continuous improvement and scalability. Quality assurance software with widespread use and adaptation across organizations is both scalable and in support of continuous improvements. Binders, rows of filing cabinets and complicated excel spreadsheets are not a scalable backbone for a quality system. 

Beyond the accessibility and traceability that a digital system creates, it also protects. “We can protect that data with credentialed logins for key personnel and have information at our fingertips to reduce the regulatory stress on all personnel,” says Ross. The stress on an audit day when there is a digitized system is vastly lower than a system that is printed and physically maintained.

For those in the cannabis industry, specifically cannabis testing labs, there is an unequivocal advantage to implementing a system that supports continuous improvement, reliable data sets and the very best in business practices. Doing so will help sustain and grow the industry, and could be pivotal in transforming the production, market and research of cannabis.

Soapbox

Quality Controls and Medical Cannabis: What We Can Learn from Pharma

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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When we discuss growing and producing medical cannabis, we must think of it as a medicine. By definition, it is a substance intended to assist you with a medical condition, to help you feel better and not harm you. Drugs produced in the pharmaceutical industry go through extensive quality controls to ensure a level of safety for the consumer or patient. Yet when we talk process and quality controls in medical cannabis production, there is still a lot to learn.

Are we waiting for the wake-up call? Well, ring! Recently Health Canada, the regulatory body overseeing Canada’s medical cannabis market, decided that “It will begin random testing of medical marijuana products to check for the presence of banned pesticides after product recalls affecting nearly 25,000 customers led to reports of illnesses and the possibility of a class action lawsuit.”

Proper quality controls help protect businesses from unforeseen issues like those massive recalls in Canada. These can assure that the product is safe (won’t harm you), has integrity (free of contamination), and that the product is what it says it is (identity). To achieve this important goal, we must have robust systems that will guarantee product quality. Why is this important? Quality controls can ensure a safer and more consistent product, helping build patient and consumer trust and brand loyalty, preventing a public relations nightmare like a recall due to pesticide contamination.

Food processing and sanitation
Product recalls due to manufacturing errors in sanitation cause mistrust among consumers.

The FDA, among other regulatory bodies, has established excellent guidelines to implement these controls. So there is a lot we can learn from the pharmaceutical industry and that FDA guidance regarding quality controls and assurance. After all, we are all interested in the same thing: a safe and effective product.

So, let’s take a look at some of the controls included in the CFR (Code of Federal Regulation), Part 211 , which include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) for finished products, and how you can implement them in the growing business of growing cannabis.

  1. Personnel selection and training: The GMPs establish that “Each person engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall have education, training… to enable that person to perform the assigned functions.” These include the creation of specific curricula per position and the establishment of requirements for specialized tasks. We all want to be successful so training, in this case, is what we call the vaccine for mistakes.
  2. Facilities: “Any building or buildings used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of suitable size, construction, and location to facilitate cleaning, maintenance, and proper operations.” This requirement includes segregation of spaces to avoid cross-contamination, housekeeping, the cleaning process and detergent types, material storage conditions, humidity levels, temperature, water, and even ventilation requirements to prevent contamination with microorganisms. All with the intention of protecting the product.
  3. Pest control: “There shall be written procedures for the use of suitable rodenticides, insecticides, fungicides, fumigating agents, and cleaning and sanitizing agents. Such written procedures shall be designed to prevent the contamination of equipment, components, drug product containers, closures, packaging, labeling materials, or drug products and shall be followed.” There have been many issues pertaining this requirement. In 2010, Johnson & Johnson received many complaints claiming that the product had a musty, moldy odor. Later, the firm identified the cause of the odor to be a chemical, called 2, 4, 6-Tribromoanisole or TBA; a pesticide used to treat wooden pallets. One of the specific requirements of this section is to avoid the use of wooden pallets, but if you decide to use them, the method of sterilization by heat treatment seems like the only safe option for sterilizing wooden pallets and wood cases.
  4. Equipment/Instrumentation: “Equipment used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of a drug product shall be of appropriate design, adequate size, and suitably located to facilitate operations for its intended use and its cleaning and maintenance.” The intention is to not alter the safety, identity, strength, quality, or purity of the drug product beyond the official or other established requirements. What would happen if lubricants/coolants or any other substance, not intended to be part of the product, comes in contact with the product?
  5. Procedures and documentation: “There shall be written procedures for production and process control designed to assure that the drug products have the identity, strength, quality, and purity they purport or are represented to possess. Such procedures shall include all requirements of this subpart. These written procedures, including any changes, shall be drafted, reviewed, and approved. When we have followable, well written, clear, and specific procedures, we avoid possible errors that can get us in trouble.
  6. Defects Investigation: “Written production and process control procedures shall be followed in the execution of the various production and process control functions and shall be documented at the time of performance. Any deviation from the written procedures shall be recorded and justified.” We want to be successful, for that we need to learn from failures, understanding the root causes, correcting and preventing re-occurrence is what will keep you competitive. As you can see this requirement is essential for, quality, business and to evidence that such deviations did not adulterate the product.
  7. Process controls: Besides written procedures and deviations management, operation controls are pivotal in guaranteeing the quality as well as complete documentation of your process. These controls will vary depending on your technology and your product. If you do alcohol (ethanol) extraction, for example,  you want to keep an eye on the temperature, dissolution time, and even have color standards to be able to quickly and correctly identify possible abnormalities, while you can still correct the mistake. In-process product testing will allow you to monitor “performance of those manufacturing processes that may be responsible for causing variability in the characteristics of in-process material and the final product.”

Regardless of federal regulatory guidance, quality controls can be that one factor which can make or break your business. Why re-invent the wheel?