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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.

Dr. Ed Askew
From The Lab

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

By Dr. Edward F. Askew
No Comments
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. 


This article is the first in a series that will look into the risks any user of laboratory services (growers, processors or dispensary owners) will face from the quality systems in place in the laboratory. I will discuss specific risk areas in clear and understandable language so as to not obscure the substance of the article series with abbreviations and nomenclature that is not familiar with the reader. Subjects of the articles that follow will focus on the specific laboratory certification or accreditation requirements and how the user may find out if their risks are addressed. As these articles are meant to be interactive with the reader, users are encouraged to send questions or suggested topics to the author.

This article will be an introduction to the typical laboratory process that generates the “paperwork wall” and how it might impact the user.My experience with laboratory certification or accreditation (difference between the two discussed later in this article) comes from over 30+ years in the environmental chemistry field. My experiences include working under the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, FIFRA (pesticides) and ISO 17025 laboratory analyses and laboratory management. I have also received training to perform ISO 17025 and EPA Drinking Water audits. During this time I have been audited as a laboratory analyst/laboratory manager and have performed audits.

As such, I can open up the laboratory structure beyond the sterile “paperwork wall” that has been constructed to allow the user to see the quality of data that is used in final reports that can wreak havoc. This article will be an introduction to the typical laboratory process that generates the “paperwork wall” and how it might impact the user.

One of the common misconceptions that a user has with a “certified or accredited” laboratory is that procession of a certificate indicates that ALL laboratory analyses produced are accurate and precise. I liken this to the “paperwork wall” that laboratories produce when the user questions any results reported to them. The laboratory management assumes that they have answered the user complaint (i.e. a certified/accredited laboratory cannot make a mistake) and the user will not pursue further questions once the certificate is produced.Accreditation does not guarantee that the laboratory personnel can perform the analyses the user is paying for; just that the laboratory’s paperwork has been audited.

First off, let’s look at what the difference between the terms certified laboratory vs. accredited laboratory. These simple words mean specifically different types of laboratories. According to the NIST National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP):

  • Certification is used for verifying that personnel have adequate credentials to practice certain disciplines, as well as for verifying that products meet certain requirements.
  • Accreditation is used to verify that laboratories have an appropriate quality management system and can properly perform certain test methods (e.g., ANSI, ASTM, and ISO test methods) and calibration parameters according to their scopes of accreditation.

So, how does that impact the user?

  • If your state or 3rd party certificate only accredits a laboratory, then the accreditation agency only inspects the laboratory’s quality program as it applies to written documents and static equipment. (e.g. The quality manual is written and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) are in place).
  • Accreditation does not guarantee that the laboratory personnel can perform the analyses the user is paying for; just that the laboratory’s paperwork has been audited.
  • Certification on the other hand says that the laboratory personnel are qualified to perform the laboratory analyses and that the final laboratory results meet specific (certain) requirements. In other words, the laboratory’s quality plan and SOPs are met.

There are three different paths that are utilized by state cannabis control agencies to accredit or certify a cannabis laboratory.

  • ISO 17025: The ISO laboratory quality standard for laboratory accreditation is the most broadly used. ISO 17025 is an international standard and its implementation in the United States is regulated by ILAC. There are three 3rd party companies that audit for and award ISO 17025 accreditation certificates. They are Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation Inc., ANAB and A2LA.
  • TNI: The NELAC Institute standards are utilized by one state to handle their cannabis laboratory accreditation.
  • States: Some states have tried to blend an ISO 17025 requirement with their own state’s certification requirements to produce a mixed accreditation-certification program. But, this type of program may rely on two or more agencies (e.g. ISO 17025 3rd party auditors communicating with state auditors) to cover all specific laboratory areas.

PJLAIn two of the paths above, the final result is that the laboratory receives accreditation. That means that only the quality management system and the scope (e.g. SOPS, laboratory instruments, etc.) have been audited, not the laboratory personnel or their capabilities. The third pathway may produce a certified laboratory or may not.

To provide an example of where an accredited laboratory followed their paperwork but produced inadequate results:

  • I received a laboratory report for organic chemical analyses of a client’s process.
    • The laboratory results placed the user in noncompliance with the state and federal regulatory limits.
    • But, the laboratory result contained data flags (e.g. additional information that explains why the laboratory result failed the laboratory’s quality requirements).
    • The laboratory still received payment from the user as the laboratory performed the analyses.
  • I had to explain to the regulatory agency that some of the data flags when investigated showed:
    • The laboratory failed to use the approved analytical method.
    • The detection level for the regulatory chemical was so low that the laboratory had no instrument capable to see those chemicals at the concentrations reported by the laboratory.
  • The state regulators accepted the explanation I provided and the user was no longer under a regulatory administrative order.
  • But, when I presented this information to the accreditation agency that accredited this laboratory I was informed:
    • The laboratory flagged the data so it can be reported to the user.
    • If the user wanted more from the laboratory, then the user will have to outline their specific requirement in a quality contract with the laboratory. (i.e. If the laboratory identifies the problems then they can report the data no matter what happens to the user).

So now, what is being done behind the “paperwork wall”? Areas such as those listed below can impact the results received by the user.

  • Laboratory quality culture: What does the laboratory staff think about quality in their normal daily work?
  • Laboratory staff competence: What is the level of training and real world competence of the staff that actually works on the analyses?
  • Laboratory capabilities: Does the laboratory actually have the laboratory instruments and equipment that can perform the analyses the user needs?
  • Laboratory quality control parameters: What is in the quality manual and does it make sense?
  • Laboratory analytical method validation: Are the analytical methods used by the laboratory validated by approved statistical procedures?

What should the user have in place to limit their risks from laboratory analyses?

  • Failsafe sampling preparation plans: Make sure the user samples for the laboratory are collected correctly.
  • Failsafe’s on laboratory sample reports: Protect the user from bad laboratory reports.
  • User auditing of the laboratory: Go to the laboratory and see if the laboratory can pass muster.

What’s Next: The next article will go behind the laboratory “paperwork wall” to detail the culture that impacts the user results negatively and how that can be recognized. Follow-up articles will help users developing quality plans that identify risks and how to limit them.

extractiongraphic

The Four Pillars of Cannabis Processing

By Christian Sweeney
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extractiongraphic

Cannabis extraction has been used as a broad term for what can best be described as cannabis processing. A well-thought-out cannabis process goes far beyond just extraction, largely overlapping with cultivation on the front-end and product development on the back-end1. With this in mind, four pillars emerge as crucial capabilities for developing a cannabis process: Cultivation, Extraction, Analytics and Biochemistry.

The purpose and value of each pillar on their own is clear, but it is only when combined that each pillar can be optimized to provide their full capacities in a well-designed process. As such, it is best to define the goals of each pillar alone, and then explain how they synergize with each other.

At the intersection of each pillar, specific technology platforms exist that can effectively drive an innovation and discovery cycle towards the development of ideal products.Cultivation is the foundation of any horticultural process, including cannabis production. Whether the goal be to convert pigments, flavors or bioactive compounds into a usable form, a natural process should only utilize what is provided by the raw material, in this case cannabis flower. That means cultivation offers a molecular feedstock for our process, and depending on our end goals there are many requirements we may consider. These requirements start as simply as mass yield. Various metrics that can be used here include mass yield per square foot or per light. Taken further, this yield may be expressed based not only on mass, but the cannabinoid content of the plants grown. This could give rise to a metric like CBD or THC yield per square foot and may be more representative of a successful grow. Furthermore, as scientists work to learn more about how individual cannabinoids and their combinations interact with the human body, cultivators will prioritize identifying cultivars that provide unique ratios of cannabinoids and other bioactive compounds consistently. Research into the synergistic effect of terpenes with cannabinoids suggests that terpene content should be another goal of cultivation2. Finally, and most importantly, it is crucial that cultivation provide clean and safe materials downstream. This means cannabis flower free of pesticides, microbial growth, heavy metals and other contaminants.

Extraction is best described as the conversion of target molecules in cannabis raw material to a usable form. Which molecules those are depends on the goals of your product. This ranges from an extract containing only a pure, isolated cannabinoid like CBD, to an extract containing more than 100 cannabinoids and terpenes in a predictable ratio. There are countless approaches to take in terms of equipment and process optimization in this space so it is paramount to identify which is the best fit for the end-product1. While each extraction process has unique pros and cons, the tunability of supercritical carbon dioxide provides a flexibility in extraction capabilities unlike any other method. This allows the operator to use a single extractor to create extracts that meet the needs of various product applications.

Analytics provide a feedback loop at every stage of cannabis production. Analytics may include gas chromatography methods for terpene content3 or liquid chromatography methods for cannabinoids 3, 4, 5. Analytical methods should be specific, precise and accurate. In an ideal world, they can identify the compounds and their concentrations in a cannabis product. Analytics are a pillar of their own due simply to the efforts required to ensure the quality and reliability of results provided as well as ongoing optimization of methods to provide more sensitive and useful results. That said, analytics are only truly harnessed when paired with the other three pillars.

extractiongraphic
Figure 1: When harnessed together the pillars of cannabis processing provide platforms of research and investigation that drive the development of world class products.

Biochemistry can be split into two primary focuses. Plant biochemistry focuses back towards cultivation and enables a cannabis scientist to understand the complicated pathways that give rise to unique ratios of bioactive molecules in the plant. Human biochemistry centers on how those bioactive molecules interact with the human endocannabinoid system, as well as how different routes of administration may affect the pharmacokinetic delivery of those active molecules.

Each of the pillars require technical expertise and resources to build, but once established they can be a source of constant innovation. Fig. 1 above shows how each of these pillars are connected. At the intersection of each pillar, specific technology platforms exist that can effectively drive an innovation and discovery cycle towards the development of ideal products.

For example, at the intersection of analytics and cultivation I can develop raw material specifications. This sorely needed quality measure could ensure consistencies in things like cannabinoid content and terpene profiles, more critically they can ensure that the raw material to be processed is free of contamination. Additionally, analytics can provide feedback as I adjust variables in my extraction process resulting in optimized methods. Without analytics I am forced to use very rudimentary methods, such as mass yield, to monitor my process. Mass alone tells me how much crude oil is extracted, but says nothing about the purity or efficiency of my extraction process. By applying plant biochemistry to my cultivation through the use of analytics I could start hunting for specific phenotypes within cultivars that provide elevated levels of specific cannabinoids like CBC or THCV. Taken further, technologies like tissue culturing could rapidly iterate this hunting process6. Certainly, one of the most compelling aspects of cannabinoid therapeutics is the ability to harness the unique polypharmacology of various cannabis cultivars where multiple bioactive compounds are acting on multiple targets7. To eschew the more traditional “silver bullet” pharmaceutical approach a firm understanding of both human and plant biochemistry tied directly to well characterized and consistently processed extracts is required. When all of these pillars are joined effectively we can fully characterize our unique cannabis raw material with targeted cannabinoid and terpene ratios, optimize an extraction process to ensure no loss of desirable bioactive compounds, compare our extracted product back to its source and ensure we are delivering a safe, consistent, “nature identical” extract to use in products with predictable efficacies.

Using these tools, we can confidently set about the task of processing safe, reliable and well characterized cannabis extracts for the development of world class products.


[1] Sweeney, C. “Goal-Oriented Extraction Processes.” Cannabis Science and Technology, vol 1, 2018, pp 54-57.

[2] Russo, E. B. “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects.” British Journal of Pharmacology, vol. 163, no. 7, 2011, pp. 1344–1364.

[3] Giese, Matthew W., et al. “Method for the Analysis of Cannabinoids and Terpenes in Cannabis.” Journal of AOAC International, vol. 98, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1503–1522.

[4] Gul W., et al. “Determination of 11 Cannabinoids in Biomass and Extracts of Different Varieties of Cannabis Using high-Performance Liquid Chromatography.” Journal of AOAC International, vol. 98, 2015, pp. 1523-1528.

[5] Mudge, E. M., et al. “Leaner and Greener Analysis of Cannabinoids.” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, vol. 409, 2017, pp. 3153-3163.

[6] Biros, A. G., Jones, H. “Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 1.” Cannabis Industry Journal, 13 Apr. 2017, www.cannabisindustryjournal.com/feature_article/applications-for-tissue-culture-in-cannabis-growing-part-1/.

[7] Brodie, James S., et al. “Polypharmacology Shakes Hands with Complex Aetiopathology.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, vol. 36, no. 12, 2015, pp. 802–821.

EVIO Labs photo

EVIO Labs Expands Ahead of California Testing Deadline

By Aaron G. Biros
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EVIO Labs photo

In a few short weeks, the regulations in California’s cannabis market will expand to include more laboratory testing. The previous exemption for selling untested product will be eliminated come July 1st, meaning that every product on dispensary shelves will have to be tested for a number of contaminants.

EVIO labs photo
Pesticide testing, expanded residual solvent testing and foreign materials testing will be added come July 1st.

According to William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs, the state is currently finalizing a revision to the existing emergency rules, which is designed to target the potential supply bottleneck situation. “To help alleviate the bottleneck, the state is eliminating the field duplicate test on every batch of cannabis or cannabis products,” says Waldrop. “This will give the labs additional bandwidth to process more batches for testing.” So one test per batch is the rule now and batch sizes will remain the same. This, of course, is contingent on the state finalizing that revision to the emergency regulations.

William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs
William Waldrop, chief executive officer and co-founder of EVIO Labs

In addition to that change, the state will expand the types of testing requirements come July 1st.  New mandatory pesticide testing, expanded residual solvent testing and foreign materials testing are added in addition to the other tests already required.

With July 1st quickly approaching, many in California fear the rules could lead to a major market disruption, such as the previously mentioned bottleneck. Waldrop sees the elimination of duplicate testing as a preventative measure by the state. “It is a good move for the industry because it allows labs to test more batches, hopefully reducing the bottleneck come July,” says Waldrop. Still though, with only 26 licensed laboratories in the state as of March, testing facilities will have to meet higher demand, performing more tests and working with more clients.

EVIO Labs is preparing for this in a number of ways. They already have a lab in Berkeley and are working to expand their capacity for more analyses. In addition to their lab in Berkeley, the company is working to get three more locations operational as quickly as possible. “Right now, EVIO Labs is expanding through the identification of new market locations,” says Waldrop. “We have announced the acquisition of a facility in Humboldt and we are outfitting it for state-mandated testing. We have secured a location in LA, and licensing for LA just began as of June 1stso we are going through the local licensing process at this time. We are still moving through the licensing process for our facility in Costa Mesa as well.”

EVIO Labs photo
Labs will soon have to deal with higher demand, meaning more samples and more clients

“In the meantime, we have expanded capacity of personnel in our Berkeley facility to support our client base until these other locations come online,” says Waldrop. “We are refining our business, bringing on additional equipment and more resources.” While the rules haven’t been implemented yet, Waldrop says he’s seen an uptick in business with licensed operators requesting more testing for the new July 1st standards.

While some might feel a bit panicky about how the new standards could disrupt the market, Waldrop says his clients are looking forward to it. “Our clients are very happy with the proposed new rules, because it reduces the cost of testing per batch, which will inherently reduce wholesale costs, making cannabis more affordable for patients and recreational users.”

Steven Burton
Soapbox

Why Traceability Is Crucial for the Cannabis Industry

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

The stage is set: cannabis legalization is rolling out around the world. With legalization comes regulations and smart companies will adapt to make new requirements work for them. In the end, our shared goal (as industry, consumers and government) is the same: provide safe, high-quality, reliable products. This is where traceability comes in.

If a cannabis product isn’t safe (cannabis is vulnerable to the same kinds of hazards as most food products), the reputation of the entire industry suffers. Earning public trust is the first step toward favorable government regulations. With upcoming decisions that will decide taxation and distribution, it’s more important than ever that cannabis producers can react quickly if recalls should occur – and that means taking traceability seriously.

Comprehensive Traceability for Cannabis Means More Than Legality

A crucial key to producing safe and high-quality cannabis products is detailed traceability. Many states require cannabis businesses to use systems like Metrc, a technology that uses RFID tags to track cannabis from seed to sale to ensure nothing is diverted to the black market. However, Metrc focuses only on the chain of custody, not on the safety or quality of the product.METRC logo

Ensuring a secure supply chain is only one piece of the cannabis puzzle. Public health hazards like toxic chemical contamination, mold growth and pathogenic contamination introduced by pests or improper employee handling need to be controlled in order to earn public trust and comply with regulations. State-mandated traceability systems don’t address these imperatives, so an effective safety technology that includes traceability, in addition to mandated systems like Metrc, is absolutely necessary to complete the cannabis picture.

Automation Technology Supports Cannabis Companies’ Growth and Helps With Audits

Cannabis professionals are aware of the regulatory scrutiny the industry is under and many have turned to automation technology to help stand up to this scrutiny, as well as collect and manage all the data necessary for compliance. Automating data collection pays off in several ways. For one, interconnected, real-time IoT technologies that are accessible to the entire facility 24/7 are giving cannabis businesses the tools they need to create the best possible products now, as well as providing them with the data they need to make their products even better. Since frequent audits are a part of the legalization transition, automation also makes preparing for audits and inspections a matter of minutes instead of days.

Ron Sigman, chief executive officer of marijuana compliance consulting firm Adherence Corp. and former investigator for the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) in Colorado, lists the most common violations for cannabis businesses that he found during more than 200 audits in an interview for Marijuana Business Daily. These violations include:

  • Metrc issues, especially accounting not matching inventory (too many plants or ounces of marijuana on the premises);
  • Security issues like lack of sufficient camera coverage;
  • Failure to upgrade licenses;
  • Improper or incomplete training of new employees.

Adopting safety and traceability concepts that the food industry developed over many decades can yield huge benefits for cannabis businessesA proper cannabis traceability technology mitigates these problems by providing notifications of inventory inconsistencies, certification expirations and more. Traceability for cannabis must be able to handle the complexities of procedures like terpene extraction and injection. With the rapid growth of the industry, it must be able to set targets and track actuals. It should track, not just cannabis plants and related derivatives, but also every other ingredient, material and packaging material used during production. There must be monitoring at each stage of production and a system in place to ensure all employee training is up to date. Preventative maintenance must be scheduled and tracked and hazards must be identified and controlled. In the event of an audit or recall, precise mass-balance calculations must be available to account for every gram of product, including non-cannabis ingredients like coconut oil and packaging materials like pouches and labels.

GMPDetailed traceability can make the difference between a cannabis business keeping their license or being shut down. “You have to make a diligent effort to stay compliant 365 days out of the year, because you never know when a regulatory agency is going to come knocking on your door,” says Sigman. Knowing exactly what went wrong when and where allows a company to make changes so failures don’t happen again.

Higher Standards Will Be Demanded

The standard sought by most in the cannabis industry is only GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certification, which is actually the lowest level of certification possible in food production. With the public demand for edibles and concentrates on the rise and major retailers scrambling for seats at the table, the demand for transparency from growers and manufacturers will increase. Cannabis companies will soon find that GMP compliance simply won’t be enough to earn trust and expand their market share, especially when it comes to edibles and concentrates.

SQF-Certified“Every day, patients express interest and assurance of wanting to know that the foods and medicines they consume are safe and of the best quality available,” says Lindsay Jones, president of Curaleaf Florida, the first medical cannabis company in Florida to achieve SQF Certification. Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification ensures a company meets the highest levels of safety and quality on a reliable basis. Curaleaf has set a new bar in the industry that others will be compelled to follow and they should be congratulated for their proactive vision.

Adopting safety and traceability concepts that the food industry developed over many decades can yield huge benefits for cannabis businesses, but it will be interesting to watch the technology evolve to accommodate the specific needs of retailers and consumers. Imagine a traceability system that ensures safety and quality while also tracking consistency and potency.

The Future of Cannabis Is Bright

The emerging cannabis industry is facing challenging hurdles on its path to widespread legalization and acceptance but the forecast is sunny – for companies who are prepared.

New Frontier Data CEO Giadha Aguirre De Carcer, explains that California’s “legal (cannabis) industry is forecast to grow from $2.8 billion in 2017 to $5.6 billion in 2020. That spending will be increasingly directed at products and retailers who understand and serve the market’s evolving tastes and preferences.” That includes implementing comprehensive traceability systems to deliver safe, quality product.

canna grow
Soapbox

CannaGrow Expo Heads to Palm Springs

By Aaron G. Biros
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canna grow

We’ve covered the CannaGrow Expo previously, but this time around we catch up with Joseph De Palma, founder of CannaGrow, to talk about the genesis of his conference and what makes the event so special. This year’s CannaGrow Expo heads to Palm Springs, California, a new location for the event, on May 19thand 20th.

We’ve watched De Palma’s conference grow over the years, moving around the country and becoming the tight-knit community we know it as today. The meat and potatoes of the show are definitely the educational sessions, panel discussions, roundtables and the expo hall. But covering it year after year we’ve noticed a real sense of community develop, one where genuine idea sharing, collaboration and inclusivity are preached. There are no dumb questions at the CannaGrow Expo.

Tom Lauerman speaks to a room full of attendees at CannaGrow San Diego

According to Joseph De Palma, CannaGrow started in 2014, when the original event was held in Denver. “From the beginning, we wanted to create an event specifically for growers, where the focus was always on education and ‘becoming a better grower’,” says De Palma. “We had experienced the existing events in the marketplace, and almost all fit into two categories at the time, festival, or generic tradeshow. Those were fine for their purpose, but they didn’t foster an environment of education, and that’s what we believed was most important to the emerging cannabis industry.” Back in 2014, their show only had 10 sessions and 30 exhibitors. “Passionate growers from around the country had 2 days of grow-focused sharing and learning, and you could see the energy and excitement,” De Palma says. “Discussions would dive deep, people made new friends, and it really elevated the conversation around cultivation.”

Attendees gather at a lighting exhibit at CannaGrow San Diego

Since the show’s debut, it’s grown substantially. The 7th CannaGrow Expo is fast approaching, and this upcoming conference has four separate tracks and roughly 100 exhibitors. But it still keeps its sense of community, one where you don’t feel crowded, where everyone has time to chat and network, without the overwhelming feeling that can come with larger trade shows. “That inclusivity and open dialog is built in,” says De Palma. “If you go to an event that’s tradeshow dominant, most people are there to walk, shop, and leave. At CannaGrow, growers and extractors come together with a plan for the weekend, remaining in a constant state of engagement with others at the show.”

This year’s show has some exciting additions to look out for. The agenda covers a wide range of topics, including everything from an introduction to growing with living soil to a discussion of cyber security. The Extraction Summit, new to this year’s event and held on Day 2, is their response to the massive rise in popularity and demand of extracts.

Eric Schlissel
Eric Schlissel, president and chief executive officer of GeekTek

Eric Schlissel, cybersecurity specialist, president and chief executive officer of GeekTek, is giving a talk focused on IT infrastructure. “My presentation will center around the actions cannabis businesses need to take right now to repel cybercrime and potential federal seizure,” says Schlissel. “As cannabis operators build their businesses and develop their security strategies, they often focus exclusively on the physical portion of their business – the merchandise and the cash in particular – and overlook the importance of designing and fortifying a secure IT infrastructure. I will discuss the importance of a holistic security strategy that embraces both and how you can both create one and prepare it for expansion into other states or even globally from the very start.” Schlissel’s discussion is one example of just how all-encompassing CannaGrow intends to be.

De Palma and his team leave few stones unturned as the show truly delivers vital information for cannabis cultivators in every area. Some things we are looking forward to? Seeing old friends and learning everything under the sun about cannabis science, growing and extraction. “People get to know each other, and with everyone sharing a core passion for cultivation and extraction, lifelong friendships are made,” says De Palma.


To check out the agenda, speakers and exhibitors, click here.

Cannabis Science Conference

Cannabis Science Conference is the world’s largest and most technical cannabis science expo. Our conference pulls together cannabis industry experts, instrument manufacturers, testing labs, research scientists, medical practitioners, policy makers and interested novices. Our annual event is aimed at improving cannabis science. Join us in Portland, Oregon, for an exciting conference with keynotes, presentations, round table discussions and exhibits. At our inaugural event we hosted over 750 attendees from all over the world! Our second event hosted over 2,000 attendees from over 24 countries!!!

A More Effective and Efficient Approach to Purer Cannabidiol Production Using Centrifugal Partition Chromatography

By Lauren Pahnke
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Many physicians today treat their patients with cannabidiol (CBD, Figure 1), a cannabinoid found in cannabis. CBD is more efficacious over traditional medications, and unlike delta-9 tetrahydrocannbinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, CBD has no psychoactive effects. Researchers have found CBD to be an effective treatment for conditions such as cancer pain, spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and Dravet Syndrome, a form of epilepsy.

CBD is still considered an unsafe drug under federal law, but to meet the medical demand, 17 states in the US recently passed laws allowing individuals to consume CBD for medical purposes. A recent survey found that half of medicinal CBD users rely on the substance by itself for treatment. As doctors start using CBD to treat more patients, the demand for CBD is only expected to rise, and meeting that demand can pose challenges for manufacturers who are not used to producing such high quantities of CBD. Furthermore, as CBD-based drugs become more popular, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will likely require manufacturers to demonstrate they can produce pure, high-quality products.

cannabidiol
Figure 1. The structure of cannabidiol, one of 400 active compounds found in cannabis.

Most manufacturers use chromatography techniques such as high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or flash chromatography to isolate compounds from natural product extracts. While these methods are effective for other applications, they are not, however, ideal for CBD isolate production. Crude cannabis oil contains some 400 potentially active compounds and requires pre-treatment prior to traditional chromatography purification. Both HPLC and flash chromatography also require silica resin, an expensive consumable that must be replaced once it is contaminated due to irreversible absorption of compounds from the cannabis extract. All of these factors limit the production capacity for CBD manufacturers.

Additionally, these chromatography methods use large quantities of solvents to elute natural compounds, which negatively impacts the environment.

A Superior Chromatography Method

Centrifugal partition chromatography (CPC) is an alternative chromatography method that can help commercial CBD manufacturers produce greater quantities of pure CBD more quickly and cleanly, using fewer materials and generating less toxic waste. CPC is a highly scalable CBD production process that is environmentally and economically sustainable.

The mechanics of a CPC run are analogous to the mechanics of a standard elution using a traditional chromatography column. While HPLC, for instance, involves eluting cannabis oil through a resin-packed chromatography column, CPC instead elutes the oil through a series of cells embedded into a stack of rotating disks. These cells contain a liquid stationary phase composed of a commonly used fluid such as water, methanol, or heptane, which is held in place by a centrifugal force. A liquid mobile phase migrates from cell to cell as the stacked disks spin. Compounds with greater affinity to the mobile phase are not retained by the stationary phase and pass through the column faster, whereas compounds with a greater affinity to the stationary phase are retained and pass through the column slower, thereby distributing themselves in separate cells (Figure 2).

Figure 2- CPC
Figure 2. How CPC isolates compounds from complex, natural mixtures. As the column spins, the mobile phase (yellow) moves through each cell in series. The compounds in the mobile phase (A, B, and C) diffuse into the stationary phase (blue) at different rates according to their relative affinities for the two phases.

A chemist can choose a biphasic solvent system that will optimize the separation of a target compound such as CBD to extract relatively pure CBD from a cannabis extract in one step. In one small-scale study, researchers injected five grams of crude cannabis oil low in CBD content into a CPC system and obtained 205 milligrams of over 95% pure CBD in 10 minutes.

Using a liquid stationary phase instead of silica imbues CPC with several time and cost benefits. Because natural products such as raw cannabis extract adhere to silica, traditional chromatography columns must be replaced every few weeks. On the other hand, a chemist can simply rinse out the columns in CPC and reuse them. Also, unlike silica columns, liquid solvents such as heptane used in CPC methods can be distilled with a rotary evaporator and recycled, reducing costs.

Environmental Advantages of CPC

The solvents used in chromatography, such as methanol and acetonitrile, are toxic to both humans and the environment. Many environmentally-conscious companies have attempted to replace these toxic solvents with greener alternatives, but these may come with drawbacks. The standard, toxic solvents are so common because they are integral for optimizing purity. Replacing a solvent with an alternative could, therefore, diminish purity and yield. Consequently, a chemist may need to perform additional steps to achieve the same quality and quantity achievable with a toxic solvent. This produces more waste, offsetting the original intent of using the green solvent.

CPC uses the same solvents as traditional chromatography, but it uses them in smaller quantities. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, these solvents can be reused. Hence, the method is effective, more environmentally-friendly, andeconomically feasible.

CPC’s Value in CBD Production

As manufacturers seek to produce larger quantities of pure CBD to meet the demand of patients and physicians, they will need to integrate CPC into their purification workflows. Since CPC produces a relativelyduct on a larger scale, it is equipped to handle the high-volume needs of a large manufacturer. Additionally, because it extracts more CBD from a given volume of raw cannabis extract, and does not use costly silica or require multiple replacement columns, CPC also makes the process of industrial-scale CBD production economically sustainable. Since it also uses significantly less solvent than traditional chromatography, CPC makes it financially feasible to make the process of producing CBD more environmentally-friendly.

Suggested Reading:

CPC 250: Purification of Cannabidiol from Cannabis sativa

Introduction to Centrifugal Partition Chromatography

Is There a Looming Supply Bottleneck in California?

By Aaron G. Biros
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California’s regulated adult use cannabis market has been up and running for around four months now and rumors of a potential supply bottleneck on the horizon are beginning to circulate. There are a number of factors that could have an impact on the cannabis supply in the market, most of which stem from changes in the distribution channels now that the state is implementing new regulations.

Those include a slow rollout in licensing cannabis businesses, new testing requirements, the supply carryover period prior to January 1stas well as new labeling and packaging regulations. In this piece, we are going to examine some of those rumors, see if there might be some truth to them and provide some guidance for what businesses can do to prepare for this.

A Slow Start to Licensing

This one is perhaps the most obvious factor to impact the supply chain in California. Much of the delays in licensing cannabis businesses came from the issue of local control, where businesses needed to get approval from their municipality before getting a state license. In the first month of the new market, it took Los Angeles weeks longer than other counties to begin licensing dispensaries. Whereas San Diego retailers saw a massive influx of customers right away, forcing them to buy up product to meet the high demand. Smaller producers also had trouble getting licenses as quickly as some of the larger ones.

Basically it all boils down to a slow start for the new market, according to Diane Czarkowski, co-founder of Canna Advisors. “The state is requiring businesses to get their local licenses before they can get their state license and that will create a delay in operators being able to bring products to market,” says Czarkowski. She says this is pretty typical of new markets, or when a market experiences dramatic changes quickly. “It could be a brand-new market, like in Hawaii, where the operators were ready with product, but there were no labs to test the products, which caused delays.” In addition to the licensing roll out being slow to start, the temporary licenses initially awarded to businesses are set to expire soon, by the end of April.

Stricter Rules to Come

The same logic goes for the testing regulations. New testing and labeling requirements, according to the Bureau of Cannabis Control regulating the market, will be phased in throughout 2018.

CA cannabis testing chart
California’s plan for phasing in testing requirements.

The state has already phased in cannabinoids, moisture content, residual solvent, pesticide, microbial impurities and homogeneity testing to some extent. On July 1st, the state will add additional residual solvent and pesticide testing as well as foreign material testing. At the end of 2018, they plan on requiring terpenoids, mycotoxins, heavy metals and water activity testing. All of those tests cost money and all of those tests could impact suppliers’ ability to bring product to market. “Oftentimes regulations require different types of testing to be done to products without recognizing that adequately completing those tests requires different methods, equipment, and standards,” says Czarkowski. “Most labs do not have all of the necessary components, and they are very costly. Producers could wait weeks to get test results back before they know if they can sell their products.”

Back when we spoke with Josh Drayton, deputy director of the California Cannabis Industry Association, about the upcoming changes to the California market, he voiced his concerns with the coming testing rules. “A lot of testing labs are concerned they are unable to test at the state’s threshold for some of these contaminants and pesticides; the detection limits seem very low,” says Drayton. “The testing portion will take years to work out, I am sure we will remove and add different pesticides and contaminants to the list.” California’s testing industry is, however, capable of adapting to changing rules, as they’ve done in the past on more than one occasion. It should be noted that many labs in the state are on the cutting edge of testing cannabis, working with The Bureau to implement the new rules.

roybingham
Roy Bingham, CEO of BDS Analytics

Cannabis products made prior to December 31st, 2017, did not need to comply with the stricter testing rules that are coming in the next few months. This carryover period allowed dispensaries to have products on the shelves when the new market launched in the beginning of 2018. Retailers knew this rule meant they needed to stockpile product in the event of a supply bottleneck, and it appears much of that product is now sold and running out, according to Roy Bingham, founder and chief executive officer of BDS Analytics. “The true impact of licenses is starting to be felt since the carryover from December buying prior to the licensed market has been sold,” says Bingham. “Some of the major brands have consciously not applied for licenses. Some of that has to do with the flexibility the government has given them to wait.”

A fourth reason for a potential bottleneck could also come from packaging and labeling rules. “There will have to be many modifications to products to ensure they follow the new potency regulations, and many formulations will have to be modified in order to meet new regulations,” says Czarkowski. Distributor licenses, according to The Bureau, have a number of compliance documentation requirements, such as arranging for all product testing, quality assurance and packaging and label accuracy. Everything has to be packaged before it gets to a dispensary, which is a new rule California businesses need to comply with.

Pricing is the Indicator

There are a handful of reasons why prices could increase; some of them are more defined than others, the biggest factor being the tax burden passed on to consumers, where reports showed up to a 40% increase from last year. A price increase in the future could also come from The Bureau implementing testing regulations throughout 2018, as mentioned previously.

If prices were to surge enormously and very quickly, that might be an indicator that a shortage is fast approaching. A dramatic increase in price over this year could squeeze margins for smaller producers, forcing retailers to pass that burden on to consumers as well.“So yes, the rumors are true.”

According to Roy Bingham, there has been a significant increase in pricing in all categories at the retail level. “In January and February, we are seeing about 10% increases per month in average retail prices,” says Bingham. “If we look at concentrates in California during 2017, they averaged about $34 by the end of the year, whereas it was about $31 at the start of 2017. So in January, prices have increased up to $38, which is a bit above trend, but in fact we were seeing a trend upwards before January 1st as well.” Comparing that with edibles pricing, Bingham says we see a clear jump at the start of 2018. “It was basically flat in 2017, averaging $14 roughly almost straight-line across, dipped in December, then in January it jumped to $17 and then to $18 in February, a big increase and significantly more than concentrates,” says Bingham. He also says flower was hovering around $9 per gram in December 2017, but surged above $10 in February 2018.

According to Cannabis Benchmarks, the California wholesale averages surged in the summer of 2017 up to $1,631 by September, then reached their lowest point in December, with their spot index at $1,368. The Cannabis Benchmarks report underlines some important reasons for the changes in pricing, but they also attribute it to the new licensing system.

“Increasing operating expenses for businesses preparing to enter California’s licensed system in 2018 were key to propping up supply side rates in the first six months of 2017. New compliance requirements were being instituted to varying degrees by local governments, while market participants warily eyed draft regulations from state officials for guidance as to how to prepare their sites and facilities to meet under-construction regulatory mandates.”

Their report highlights some very important aspects of the supply chain. “Again, it is likely that the increased costs faced by operators up and down the supply chain exert some upward pressure on wholesale rates, preventing them from steep year-over-year declines that were observed in some of the other major Western markets,” reads the Cannabis Benchmarks report.

So How Can Businesses Prepare?

Well to start, producers should make sure their operations and product are clean and safe. Making sure your product will pass a pesticide test should be top of mind. Dispensaries should also be wise in selecting their suppliers, performing supplier quality audits or some form of verification that they meet your standards is key in a consistent supply chain.

Dr. Jon Vaught, chief executive officer of Front Range Biosciences, believes tissue culture could be a viable solution for some California producers. Using tissue culture, as a form of propagation instead of mothers and clones can be cleaner, cheaper and more efficient, thus allowing growers to keep up with demand and prevent a shortage.

Dr. Jon Vaught headshot
Dr. Jon Vaught, CEO of Front Range Biosciences

Dr. Vaught says growers could look to tissue culture as a means to “mitigate risk to their supply chain and mitigate the risk of potential loss and improve their ability to efficiently grow their plant.” Maintaining a disease-free, sterile environment is a huge advantage in the cannabis market. “The real use of tissue culture is to provide disease free, clean, certified material, that has gone through a QA program,” says Dr. Vaught. “In greenhouses, the ability to control your environment is also critical because your margin of error is high. Variations in sunlight, weather, humidity all of these things have an impact in your plants. Technology can help monitor this.”

We’ve covered the basics of tissue culture previously on CIJ, with Dr. Hope Jones chief science officer of C4 Laboratories. She echoes many of Dr. Vaught’s points, firmly believing that, having existed for decades, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up.It is a complex supply chain that requires systems thinking.

It is important to note they don’t think growers should try this at home. Work with professionals, get the necessary funding, the training and facilities required if this is a project that interest you. “There’s a pretty big barrier to entry there,” Dr. Vaught urges. “The ability to manage thousands or millions of plants in a greenhouse increases risk, whereas in the lab, you’ve got a safe, secure, sterile environment, reducing risk of disease, making things easier to manage. The producers most successful at large scale are controlling those variables to the T.”

Ultimately, one segment of the market can’t prevent a bottleneck. It is a complex supply chain that requires systems thinking. Regulators need to work with producers, manufacturers, retailers, distributors, patients, consumers and laboratories to keep an eye on the overall supply chain flow.

Diane Czarkowski says the California market should prepare for this now if they haven’t already. “We have seen supply issues in every market going through a change. Other potential bottlenecks will occur because former distribution channels will be required to change,” says Czarkowski. “So yes, the rumors are true.”

VinceSebald

Maintenance and Calibration: Your Customers Are Worth It!

By Vince Sebald
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VinceSebald

Ultimately, the goal of any good company is to take care of their customers by providing a quality product at a competitive price. You take the time to use good practices in sourcing raw materials, processing, testing and packaging to make sure you have a great final product. Yet in practice, sometimes the product can degrade over time, or you find yourself facing costly manufacturing stoppages and repairs due to downed equipment or instrumentation. This can harm your company’s reputation and result in real, negative effects on your bottom line.

One thing you can do to prevent this problem is to have a properly scaled calibration and maintenance program for your organization.

First, a short discussion of terms:

Balance Calibration
Figure 1– Periodic calibration of an electronic balance performed using traceable standard weights helps to ensure that the balance remains within acceptable operating ranges during use and helps identify problems.

Calibration, in the context of this article, refers to the comparison of the unit under test (your equipment) to a standard value that is known to be accurate. Equipment readings often drift over time due to various reasons and may also be affected by damage to the equipment. Periodic calibration allows the user to determine if the unit under test (UUT) is sufficiently accurate to continue using it. In some cases, the UUT may require adjustment or may not be adjustable and should no longer be used.

Maintenance, in the context of this article, refers to work performed to maximize the performance of equipment and support a long life span for the equipment. This may include lubrication, adjustments, replacement of worn parts, etc. This is intended to extend the usable life of the equipment and the consistency of the quality of the work performed by the equipment.

There are several elements to putting together such a program that can help you to direct your resources where they will have the greatest benefit. The following are some key ingredients for a solid program:

Keep it Simple: The key is to scale it to your operation. Focus on the most important items if resources are strained. A simple program that is followed and that you can defend is much better than a program where you can never catch up.

Written Program: Your calibration and maintenance programs should be written and they should be approved by quality assurance (QA). Any program should include the following: 

  • Equipment Assessment and Identification: Assess each piece of equipment or instrument to determine if it is important enough to be calibrated and/or requires maintenance. You will probably find much of your instrumentation is not used for a critical purpose and can be designated as non-calibrated. Each item should have an ID assigned to allow tracking of the maintenance and/or calibration status.
  • Scheduling System: There needs to be some way to schedule when equipment is due for calibration or maintenance. This way it is easy to stay on top of it. A good scheduling system will pay for itself over time and be easy to use and maintain. A web-based system is a good choice for small to mid-sized companies.
  • Calibration Tolerance Assignment: If you decide to calibrate an instrument, consider what kind of accuracy you actually need from the equipment/instrument. This is a separate discussion on its own, but common rule of thumb is that the instrument should be at least 4 times more accurate than your specification. For very important instruments, it may require spending the money to get a better device.
  • Calibration and Maintenance Interval Assignments: Consider what interval you are going to perform maintenance for each equipment item. Manufacturer recommendations are based on certain conditions. If you use the equipment more or less often than “normal” use, consider adjusting the interval between calibrations or maintenance. 
  • OOT Management: If you do get an Out of Tolerance (OOT) result during a calibration and you find that the instrument isn’t as accurate as you need. Congratulations! You just kept it from getting worse. Review the history and see if this may have had an effect since the last passing calibration, adjust or replace the instrument, take any other necessary corrective actions, and keep it up.

    Maintenance with Checklist
    Figure 2- Maintenance engineers help keep your systems running smoothly and within specification for a long, trouble-free life.
  • Training: Make sure personnel that use the equipment are trained on its use and not to use equipment that is not calibrated for critical measurements. Also, anyone performing calibration and/or maintenance should be qualified to do so. It is best to put a program in place as soon as you start acquiring significant equipment so that you can keep things running smoothly, avoid costly repairs and quality control problems. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming equipment will keep running just because it has run flawlessly for months or years. There are many bad results that can come of mismanaged calibration and/or maintenance including the following:
  • Unscheduled Downtime/Damage/Repairs: A critical piece of equipment goes down. Production stops, and you are forced to schedule repairs as soon as possible. You pay premium prices for parts and labor, because it is an urgent need. Some parts may have long lead times, or not be available. You may suffer reputational costs with customers waiting for delivery. Some calibration issues could potentially affect operator safety as well.
  • Out of Specification Product: Quality control may indicate that product is not maintaining its historically high quality. If you have no calibration and maintenance program in place, tracking down the problem is even more difficult because you don’t have confidence in the readings that may be indicating that there is a problem.
  • Root Cause Analysis: Suppose you find product that is out of specification and you are trying to determine the cause. If there is no calibration and maintenance program in place, it is far more difficult to pinpoint changes that may have affected your production system. This can cause a very significant impact on your ability to correct the problem and regain your historical quality standards of production.

A solid calibration and maintenance program can go a long way to keeping your production lines and quality testing “boring”, without any surprises or suspense, and can allow you to put more sophisticated quality control systems in place. Alternatively, an inappropriate system can bog you down with paperwork, delays, unpredictable performance, and a host of other problems. Take care of your equipment and relax, knowing your customers will be happy with the consistent quality that they have become accustomed to.