The lab was accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 – General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories, so they are now able to test for pesticides in cannabis and other matrices, according to the press release published today. “WSDA sought this accreditation to ensure our clients can have absolute confidence in our testing methods and lab results. The information we produce drives enforcement cases and policy decisions,” says Mike Firman, manager of the WSDA Chemical and Hop Laboratory. “We want to do everything that can be done to make sure our data is reliable.”
The A2LA Cannabis Accreditation Program is essentially a set of standards for quality in testing cannabis and cannabis-based products, such as infused products, tinctures and concentrates. ISO 17025 accreditation is quickly become a desirable certification for laboratories. Many states strongly encourage or even require ISO 17025 accreditation for cannabis laboratories. California recently released a set of proposed lab testing regulations for the cannabis industry that specifically requires an ISO 17025 accreditation in order for laboratories to issue certificates of analysis.
Because each state’s requirements for laboratories testing cannabis varies so greatly, A2LA works with state regulators to craft their accreditation program to meet each state’s specific requirements. “A2LA is excited to play such an important role in the accreditation of cannabis testing laboratories and is pleased to see ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation expanding into additional states,” says A2LA General Manager Adam Gouker. “Priority must be placed on ensuring that cannabis products are tested by competent laboratories to convey confidence in the results – a cornerstone which underpins the safety to all end-users.” A2LA is currently accepting applications for cannabis laboratories working to receive accreditation. Labs that already have ISO 17025 accreditation and are in a state with legal cannabis, have the ability to expand their scope of accreditation if they are looking to get into cannabis testing.
Formerly named the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation under the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs, the Bureau of Marijuana Control is tasked with overseeing the development, implementation and enforcement of the regulations for the state’s cannabis industry. In their statement of reasons for the lab testing regulations, the bureau says they are designed with public health and safety at top of mind. At first glance, much of these laboratory rules seem loosely modeled off of Colorado and Oregon’s already implemented testing regulations.
The regulations lay out requirements for testing cannabis products prior to bringing them to market. That includes testing for residual solvents and processing chemicals, microbiological contaminants, mycotoxins, foreign materials, heavy metals, pesticides, homogeneity as well as potency in quantifying cannabinoids.
The microbiological impurities section lays out some testing requirements designed to prevent food-borne illness. Labs are required to test for E. coli, Salmonella and multiple species of the pathogenic Aspergillus. If a lab detects any of those contaminants, that batch of cannabis or cannabis products would then fail the test and could not be sold to consumers. A lab must report all of that information on a certificate of analysis, according to the text of the regulations.
The proposed regulations stipulate requirements for sampling, including requiring labs to develop sampling plans with standard operating procedures (SOPs) and requiring a lab-approved sampler to follow chain-of-custody protocols. The rules also propose requiring SOPs for analytical methodology. That includes some method development parameters like the list of analytes and applicable matrices. It also says all testing methods need to be validated and labs need to incorporate guidelines from the FDA’s Bacterial Analytical Manual, the U.S. Pharmacopeia and AOAC’s Official Methods of Analysis for Contaminant Testing, or other scientifically valid testing methodology.
Labs will be required to be ISO 17025-accredited in order to perform routine cannabis testing. Laboratories also need to participate in proficiency testing (PT) program “provided by an ISO 17043 accredited proficiency-test provider.” If a laboratory fails to participate in the PT program or fails to pass to receive a passing grade, that lab may be subject to disciplinary action against the lab’s license. Labs need to have corrective action plans in place if they fail to get a passing grade for any portion of the PT program.
On December 7th, 374 Labs received ISO 17025 accreditation, becoming the first in Nevada to do so. The laboratory, based in Sparks, Nevada, is state-certified and now the only ISO 17025 accredited lab in the state, according to a press release. The laboratory is a member in both the Association of Commercial Cannabis Laboratories (ACCL) and the Nevada Cannabis Laboratory Association (NVCLA).
According to the release, 374 Labs was a driving force behind Nevada’s round robin cannabis lab testing program. That program, administered by the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health (DPBH) and the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA), sends cannabis samples to each state-certified cannabis lab for a full analysis, measuring the consistency in test results across labs. “In other states proficiency involves testing pre-prepared, purified samples and neglects the challenges of coaxing out delicate analytes from the complex array of compounds found in actual marijuana,” says Laboratory Director Jason Strull. “I commend the DPBH and NDA for facilitating such an advanced quality program.”
Also notable is the announcing of their partnership with Clean Green Certified, a third-party certification (based on USDA organic certification) for sustainable, organically based cannabis cultivation. “Nevada allows certain levels of pesticides like Myclobutanil on its certified marijuana, so we wanted a way for patients and consumers to able to distinguish marijuana that is grown using organic methods,” said Laboratory Director Jason Strull. According to Michael Seibert, managing member of 374 Labs, they have already started performing inspections for the third-party certification and the first facility inspected was Silver State Trading in Sparks, Nevada (certified for both production and cultivation).
In the last article I referred to the analogy of the analytical reference material being a keystone of the laboratory foundation, the stone upon which all data relies. I then described the types of reference materials and their use in analytical testing in general terms. This article will describe the steps required to properly manufacture and deliver a certified reference material (CRM) along with the necessary documentation.
A CRM is an exclusive reference material that meets strict criteria defined by ISO Guide 34 and ISO/IEC 17025. ISO is the International Organization for Standardization and IEC is the International Electrotechnical Commission. These organizations work together to set globally recognized standards. In order for a reference material to be labeled as a CRM it must 1) be made with raw or starting materials which are characterized using qualified methods and instruments, 2) be produced in an ISO-accredited lab under documented procedures, and 3) fall under the manufacturer’s scopes of accreditation. Verifying a CRM supplier has these credentials is easily done by viewing their certificates which should include their scopes of accreditation.
There are many steps required to produce a CRM that meets the above three criteria. The first step requires a review of the customer’s, or end-user’s requirements to carefully define what is to be tested, at what levels and which analytical workflow will be used. Such information enables the producer to identify the proper compounds and solvents required to properly formulate the requested CRM.
The next step requires sourcing and acquiring the raw, or starting materials, then verifying their compatibility and stability using stability and shipping studies in accordance with ISO requirements. Next the chemical identify and purity of the raw materials must be characterized using one or more analytical techniques such as: GC-FID, HPLC, GC-ECD, GC-MS, LC-MS, refractive index and melting point. In some cases, the percent purity is changed by the producer when their testing verifies it’s different from the supplier label. All steps are of course documented.
The producer’s analytical balances must be verified using NIST traceable weights and calibrated annually by an accredited third party provider to guarantee accurate measurement. CRMs must be prepared using Class A volumetric glassware, and all ampules and vials used in preparation and final packaging must be chemically treated to prevent compound degradation during storage. Next, CRMs are packaged in an appropriate container, labeled then properly stored to maintain the quality and stability until it’s ready to be shipped. All labels must include critical storage, safety and shelf life information to meet federal requirements. The label information must be properly linked to documentation commonly referred to as a certificate of analysis (COA) which describes all of the above steps and verifies the traceability and uncertainty of all measurements for each compound contained in the CRM.
My company, RESTEK, offers a variety of documentation choices to accompany each CRM. Depending on the intended use and data quality objectives specified by the end-user, which were defined way back at the first step, three options are typically offered: They include gravimetric only, qualitative which includes gravimetric, and fully quantitative which includes all three levels of documentation. The graphic to the right summarizes the three options and what they include.
It’s important to understand which level you’re purchasing especially when ordering a custom CRM from a supplier. Most stock CRMs include all three levels of documentation, but it’s important to be sure.
Understanding what must be done to produce and deliver a CRM sets it apart from other reference material types, however it’s important to understand there are some instances where CRMs are either not available, nor required and in those situations other types of reference materials are perfectly acceptable.
If you have any questions or would like more details about reference materials please contact me, Joe Konschnik at (800) 356-1688 ext. 2002 by phone, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lezli Engelking founded the Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards (FOCUS) in 2014 to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the cannabis industry through the use of standards. Standards are an agreed upon way of doing things and specify guidelines or requirements for producing goods or providing services, according to FOCUS.
Standards can take the form of a “reference document, which may include specifications, guidelines, conditions or requirements for products, operations, services, methods, personnel and systems on how to design, operate, manufacture or manage something.” Peter Maguire, VP of System Applications for Lighthouse Worldwide Solutions and committee chair of the FOCUS Cultivation standard, joined the organization wanting to make a positive impact on the industry that is in line with protecting people and medical patients. He sees so much variability in the industry and the need to homogenize standard operating procedures (SOPs). “I have worked with multiple cultivation facilities and a few of them have operating procedures in place but having them in place is only half the solution- it’s critical to have the right ones in place,” says Maguire. He has twenty years of experience in contamination control in manufacturing, before entering the cannabis industry.
The FOCUS cultivation standard was created by experts who have years of experience in both cannabis cultivation, good agricultural practices and in the tightly regulated pharmaceutical industry. “FOCUS created these guidelines as a sort of roadmap for success in business; You need to keep your employees healthy and your products safe to survive in the long term,” says Maguire. We sit down with Lezli Engelking to find out how the standards are created, what makes them significant and what businesses can gain by working with them.
CannabisIndustryJournal: Why are standards important?
Lezli: Standards are the international language for trade – they exist in every industry. “The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that standards and conformity assessment impact more than 80% of global commodity trade.” FOCUS is not reinventing the wheel with what we are doing. We are simply adapting a business model the federal government already uses. In the 80s, when the heroin epidemic swept across the US, methadone clinics popped up in every state in the country within two years. The clinics were all operating under different state, city and county regulations – much like the cannabis industry is today. The federal government took a look at the situation and decided they needed a way to regulate these clinics in order to protect public health and safety. They released a Request For Proposal (RFP) looking for an organization to create voluntary-consensus standards and a third-party certification system for the methadone clinics. Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) is the organization that answered and won that RFP. CARF continues to work with Health and Human Services to maintain the standards and provide third-party certification to the clinics today. FOCUS develops international, voluntary consensus standards and a third party certification program for the global cannabis industry based on the CARF model. This is extremely important, because of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, (Public Law 104-115), signed into law March 7, 1996 by President Clinton. The act requires that all federal agencies use standards developed by voluntary-consensus standards bodies, instead of government-unique standards wherever possible. Perhaps even more importantly, the Act includes provisions that encourage federal agencies to partner with the private sector in the development of standards that not only help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government, but also strengthen the U.S. position in the global marketplace.
CIJ: What exactly goes into developing a voluntary-consensus standard?
Lezli: Voluntary-Consensus refers to the type of standard and how it is developed. Everyone who participates in the development of voluntary-consensus standards does so on a voluntary basis. Committee members must come to a consensus on every point within the standard- down to every comma or semicolon. Once the development process is complete, the standards must undergo a 30-day public review period. The process for developing voluntary-consensus standards is designated by International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ISO has member agencies in 163 countries that participate in the development of standards. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is the American body for ISO. FOCUS follows all ISO/ANSI guidelines in the standards development process. This is extremely important because it means FOCUS standards are suitable for accreditation and adoption into regulations according to the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act. All voluntary-consensus standards are developed under the principles of:
Openness| Participation in the standard development process is open to individuals with a stake in the standard who bring useful expertise along with the spirit and willingness to participate.
Balance| Focus stakeholder groups involve all stakeholder groups: industry, regulatory, quality assurance, medical, law enforcement, business, research, consumers, patients and the general public.
Voluntary-Consensus| Individual subcommittees of volunteers develop each area of the standard, offering their unique expertise to form a consensus. They are not paid for their participation.
Lack of Dominance| No party has dominant representation, or influence to the exclusion of fair and equitable consideration of other viewpoints.
CIJ: More specifically, how are the FOCUS standards developed?
Lezli: To create a baseline standard, FOCUS utilized World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP), Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Laboratory Practices (GLP), Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for pharmaceutical GMPs, nutraceutical GMPs, food safety standards, OSHA and HACCP. From there, applicable cannabis regulations from around the world were added. All of this information was compiled into auditor-style checklists. Each committee member was provided time to go edit, remove or add to items in the checklist on their own. Over the next two years, each of the eight committees had monthly meetings, going through and coming to a consensus on each line item of the standard. Once the committees completed development, the standards were open for a 30-day Public Review to collect comments and feedback. The first eight FOCUS standards, completed and ready for use, cover Cultivation, Retail, Extraction, Infused Products, Laboratory, Security, Sustainability and Packaging & Labeling.
FOCUS is currently recruiting committee members to begin development of five new cannabis standards later this year: Advertising/Marketing, Insurance, Banking/Finance, Patient Care and Research. Committees will receive a list of proposed suggestions for what should be considered in developing the standards. Each committee member will develop a list to select criteria they think should be included into the standard. FOCUS will compile the lists, then committees will go through the monthly standards development/vetting process for each line item in the standard.
CIJ: So what does a business have to gain by adopting a FOCUS standard?
Lezli: Compliance becomes easily manageable with the FOCUS software platform, integrating standards, training and SOPs into the everyday operations of the business. FOCUS certified clients could expect to reduce costs, reduce risk and reduce liability by assuring they are producing safe, quality and consistent products. FOCUS certification allows a business to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and prove to their patients and customers they can trust their products. Certification also allows businesses to access reasonable insurance rates and drives interest from investors.
FOCUS is here to partner with cannabis businesses. We are there to hold their hand, by providing guidance and assistance along every step of the way. Unlike state mandated audits that delineate what a business is doing right or wrong, FOCUS is an on-going compliance management system. We are here to make sure a business runs as efficiently as possible and take the guesswork out of compliance. Under FOCUS certification, a business receives ongoing consulting, customized SOPs, employee training and a documentation management software system to track and prove compliance.
CIJ: Can you give us an update on FOCUS’ progress in 2016?
Lezli: A large milestone for FOCUS this year, aside from completing version one of the standards, is choosing an appropriate software platform, (Power DMS) to house the standards and provide an ongoing compliance management system for our clients. Power DMS also houses regulatory standards for law enforcement; health care, federal aviation and fire departments, so most agencies in public health are already familiar with it. The familiarity and access to this platform is a huge benefit on the regulatory side. It allows first responders to access the schematics of a FOCUS certified client in the event of an emergency. This is crucial in the event of an explosion from extraction equipment, or a fire in a cultivation facility, as without first identifying where the hazards are, they will not access the facility. The FOCUS software platform allows first responders access to all pertinent information through computers in police cars, ambulances, or fire trucks.
For the industry, the FOCUS software platform is equally as impressive. Not only does the platform house the standards and all SOPs, it is also complete compliance management system. FOCUS certified clients have a simple management tool that houses all training and documentation, assuring all required compliance documentation can be easily accessed at any time. The platform also allows FOCUS certified clients to provide access to governing bodies in advance of state audits –streamlining the process and minimizing time and interruption caused by state audits. The FOCUS platform tracks all changes to required documents, provides real time updates on employee training, creates appropriate traceability logs, and provides updates on regulatory changes, including which SOPs need to be changed to maintain compliance. The platform allows FOCUS to be way more than an auditing company. FOCUS is a partnership in compliance for cannabis companies wanting to maintain good business practices and stay compliant with regulations.
We have about 140 new committee members that will assist existing committees with standards updates and participate in the development of the next set of FOCUS standards for advertising/marketing, banking/finance, research, patient care and insurance. All committees will convene before 2017.
“By achieving ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation, TEQ Analytical Labs believes that we can address the concerns throughout the cannabis industry regarding insufficient and unreliable scientific analysis by providing our clients with state-required tests that are accredited by an international standard,” says Seth Wong, president of TEQ Analytical Laboratories. According to a TEQ Analytical press release, accreditation to this standard confirms that laboratories have the management, quality, and technical systems in place to ensure accurate and reliable analyses, as well as proper administrative processes to confirm that all aspects related to the sample, analysis and reporting are standardized, measured and monitored.
By implementing ISO 17025 accreditation, the laboratory monitors systems and processes central to analyses in an effort to minimize discrepancies and variability in test results. According to Roger Brauninger, biosafety program manager at A2LA, this type of accreditation demonstrates their competence and commitment to rigorous science. “It is encouraging to have testing laboratories taking ownership of the quality of the work performed,” says Brauninger. “Reliable testing will be imperative to insure safety of the products out on the market as this industry continues to expand.” As the first accreditation of its kind in North America, Brauninger hopes this will open the doors for more cannabis laboratories to acknowledge their role in demonstrating scientific competency for the industry.
Tripp Keber, president and chief executive officer of Dixie Brands, Inc., commends the achievement. “At Dixie Brands, we believe that cannabis is powerful, that quality is important, and that accurate dosing is of supreme importance,” says Keber. “Because Dixie is committed to delivering a safe, consistent, and accurately dosed product, lab testing is a vital component to our manufacturing processes.”
“TEQ’s achievement of ISO 17025 accreditation instills great confidence to Dixie Brands that our consumers’ health and safety is ensured and that they will enjoy a reliable and predictable experience with our product each and every time,” adds Keber. “Dixie’s strategic relationship with TEQ continues to build long-term brand value.” This kind of accreditation helps build trust in laboratories’ clients knowing they can provide accurate results repeatedly.
The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) and Americans for Safe Access (ASA) announced yesterday a collaboration to develop a cannabis-specific laboratory accreditation program based upon the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025 and ASA’ s Patient Focused Certification (PFC) Program. Accreditation under this program will offer the highest level of recognition and provide the most value to the laboratory and users of the products tested, according to a press release published yesterday. ASA is the largest medical cannabis patient advocacy group in the United States. “A2LA is pleased to partner with ASA to offer a cannabis testing laboratory accreditation program to ISO/IEC 17025 as well as the additional laboratory requirements from ASA’s Patient Focused Certification Program,” says Roger Brauninger, biosafety program manager at A2LA.
The program affirms that cannabis laboratories are compliant with state and local regulations and ensures that they adhere to the same standards that are followed by laboratories used and inspected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) among other regulatory bodies. The two non-profit organizations will offer their first joint training course at A2LA’s headquarters in Maryland from July 11th to the 15th. During this course, participants will receive training on PFC’s national standards for the cultivation, manufacture, dispensing, and testing of cannabis and cannabis products, combined with ISO/IEC 17025 training.
The guidelines for cannabis operations that serve as the basis for this accreditation program were issued by the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) Cannabis Committee, an industry stakeholder panel, and have already been adopted by sixteen states. “We are very excited to see the PFC program join the ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation efforts to help fully establish a robust and reliable cannabis testing foundation,” says Jeffrey Raber, chief executive officer of The Werc Shop, a PFC-certified cannabis testing laboratory. “It is a great testament to ASA’s commitment to quality in their PFC program by partnering with a world-renowned accrediting body to set a new standard for cannabis testing labs.”
According to Kristin Nevedal, program director of PFC, this is an important first in the industry. “This new, comprehensive accreditation program affirms laboratory operations are meeting existing standards and best practices, adhering to the ISO/IEC 17025 criteria, and are compliant with state and local regulations,” says Nevedal. “This program is the first of its kind developed specifically for the cannabis industry, giving confidence to patients as well as regulators that their test results on these products are accurate and consistent.”
“The program will combine the expertise and resources of the country’s largest accreditation body with the scientific rigor and knowledge base of the nation’s largest medical cannabis advocacy group, benefitting the myriad of laboratories tasked with analyzing cannabis products,” says Nevedal. According to Brauninger, a cannabis-specific accreditation program is vital to the industry’s constantly shifting needs. “The ability to now offer a cannabis testing laboratory accreditation program that is tailored to address the unique concerns and issues of the industry will help to add the necessary confidence and trust in the reliability and safety of the cannabis products on the market,” says Brauninger. “Those laboratories that gain accreditation under this program will be demonstrating that they adhere to the most comprehensive and relevant set of criteria by their compliance to both the underlying framework of the internationally recognized ISO/IEC 17025:2005 quality management system standard and the specific guidelines issued by the AHPA Cannabis Committee.” This type of collaboration could represent a milestone in progress toward achieving a higher level of consumer safety in the cannabis industry.
The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) recently implemented a set of temporary rules effective through June 28th of this year with the goal to establish a set of regulations for cannabis testing by October 1st. An investigation by The Oregonian highlighted some of the previous problems with cannabis testing in the state.
The most impactful rule changes include The NELAC Institute (TNI) mandatory standards for laboratories that the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (ORELAP) will use to accredit labs. Initial rules in the Oregon medical cannabis program, HB 3460 from 2013, did not specify accreditation rules for cannabis testing.
ORELAP currently performs accreditation for lab testing under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The new cannabis testing rules will give ORELAP the authority to accredit and regulate cannabis labs in the state of Oregon.
Rodger Voelker, Ph.D., laboratory director of OG Analytical in Eugene, OR, believes these rules are monumental in establishing legitimacy in cannabis testing. “These new rules have major repercussions mainly because they require not only getting accreditation, but maintaining it with very strict requirements,” says Voelker. “That also includes procedural guidelines that very carefully outline the quality of laboratory practices and establishes a set of criteria for method validation.”
Voelker notes that two of the biggest changes are in quality control and data management. “The documentation they require is very thorough and strict with the idea that any aspect of an analysis can be replicated,” adds Voelker. “This is a real win for us in my opinion because now we have an agency that can issue the appropriate credentials as well as have the authority to make punitive measures.”
The timeline for implementation with temporary rules allows state regulators to work with laboratories to perform accreditation and bring laboratories up to speed. According to Shannon Swantek, ORELAP compliance specialist, products that dispensaries sell in medical and recreational markets are required to be tested under the new rules and in the analyte lists by an ORELAP accredited laboratory, starting on October 1st.
Swantek’s job is to accredit cannabis labs to the TNI standards, which is essentially very similar to ISO 17025, just with more prescriptive measures and the ability to pair with state agencies to enforce rules after accreditation. “The timeline for accreditation is dependent on how ready the lab is and how compliant they are to the TNI standard already,” says Swantek. “The culture had gotten so fraudulent that the legislature felt Oregon needed some serious, more strict rules in place.”
One of the biggest changes coming to Oregon cannabis testing is the new sampling requirement. “An accredited laboratory employee must take the sample because sampling is where a lack of training or outright fraud is skewing results, which occurs when a grower brings in a sample not representative of the batch,” adds Swantek. Sample preparation methods will also be required to be more robust to meet the action limits of pesticide testing in particular, helping to identify lower levels like parts-per-billion, according to Swantek.
Reports were also lacking key information in the past. The new rules will require more information such as the procedure used, the analyst carrying it out, dilution factors and any other information you need to theoretically reproduce the result. This will result in more accurate labels on products.
Many are concerned that the new lab testing requirements will raise the price of testing too much. In reality, those current prices are not realistic for accurate data, which points to the rampant fraud that ORELAP is trying to eradicate. “The old rules were written in such an ambiguous way that the prices were set by laboratories without a proper quality program or even without proper instrumentation,” says Swantek.
The accreditation process will require particularly robust quality control systems in labs. “Accreditation to the TNI Standard means that lab quality systems will require a documentation system, training procedures, record keeping, personnel requirements, organization details, proof of no conflicts of interest and corrective actions if noncompliant,” adds Swantek. “We single out each method or procedure, look at their raw data and proficiency testing and determine if they are meeting the technical requirements.”
According to Voelker, other industries have learned to adjust their costs with stringent lab testing rules. “I get that no one wants to pay more for lab testing, but the reality is that joining the world of commodities comes with additional costs to ensure consumer safety,” says Voelker. These rule changes will undoubtedly bring more consistency to Oregon’s cannabis industry with accurate lab testing and help the OHA shed more light on issues surrounding consumer safety.
Living in a world of ever-increasing interdependence and an era of limited state government, financial and human resources, it is imperative that those charged with protecting the health and safety of patients and users of medical and recreational cannabis products leverage what private sector institutions and existing frameworks already offer in setting up quality standards for laboratory testing operations. That this moment arrives now – at a point where state governments are being tasked with undertaking the most significant change in the regulation of this substance whilst the federal government appears unwilling to play a substantial role – makes this partnership both inevitable and absolutely necessary.
Accreditation is an internationally accepted conformity assessment tool for ensuring laboratory competence and confidence in the accuracy and reliability test data. The accreditation infrastructure is well-established through accreditation bodies (ABs) and the Mutual Recognition Arrangement (MRA) of the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC), supported by regional cooperative arrangements, including those of the Asia Pacific Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (APLAC) and the Inter-American Accreditation Cooperation (IAAC). ILAC functions as a forum for harmonization of laboratory accreditation procedures and policies, thus reducing technical barriers to trade and promoting laboratory accreditation as a mechanism for establishing confidence in testing facilities. ILAC MRA signatory ABs are recognized, through a rigorous peer evaluation process, as competent to accredit testing organizations. All signatory ABs must meet the requirements of ISO/IEC 17011 and use ISO/IEC 17025 as the basis for accreditation of laboratories. In turn, under the ILAC MRA and the regional co-operations, competent laboratories are recognized globally, thus facilitating acceptance of the test results that accompany goods across international borders.
In other areas, such as the food supply and energy, both state and federal government have been an active participant in accreditation activities. According to The Administrative Conference of the United States in its Agency Use of Third-Party Programs to Assess Regulatory Compliance*, “…agencies in diverse areas of regulation have developed third-party programs to assess whether regulated entities are in compliance with regulatory standards and other requirements. Through these programs, third parties are charged with assessing the safety of imported food… Third parties also ensure that products labeled as organic and energy-efficient meet applicable federal standards. In these regulatory third-party programs, regulated entities generally contract with third parties to carry out product testing and other regulatory compliance assessment activities in the place of regulatory agencies. Regulatory agencies take on new roles in coordinating and overseeing these third-party actors.” While this reference largely deals with areas outside of cannabis regulation, it remains useful and relevant because of the manner in which cannabis products are used.
Traditionally, ABs have worked with regulators to establish specific technical requirements to supplement the ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation framework. In this partnership, the AB is responsible for executing the assessment and accreditation process but the regulator retains responsibility for the ultimate decisions on the acceptance of that organization’s accreditation. In the example of our food supply and its various sources, governmental recognition of accreditation bodies operating in accordance with international standards is much more practical than government agencies themselves accrediting the individual testing organizations or ABs. Thus the public/private partnership paradigm: To assess regulatory compliance a Regulatory Agency approves ABs that accredit organizations that assess whether Regulated Entities or Regulated Products are in conformity with a Regulatory Standard.*
In this example, all of the organizations are treated equally by the regulatory agency since they use the same recognition criteria for ABs and the same accreditation requirements in the assessment of conformity assessment bodies. This approach would also provide consistency at a point in time where many states are grappling with trying to find the best quality standard to use and which, to date, has resulted in many different standards being chosen or considered for implementation. This is especially true when one looks at the requirements put into place by the “early adopter” states. However, in those states that have entered this area more recently, it seems clear that the consensus is use of ISO/IEC 17025 as the most appropriate quality management standard for testing laboratories.
There are many factors to consider when selecting a third party analytical laboratory:
Why are you testing?
Does a governing body require it?
Are you testing to meet compliance with industry trends?
Are you testing as supplemental protection to an in house laboratory operation?
Are your results being used to help you market your product?
Are the results being utilized for internal R&D?
What are you looking to get out of testing?
Perhaps it is a combination of all these things. Regardless, whomever you contract with for whatever reasons, it is important to understand what you are getting, know what you are entitled to, understand your results, and understand where you and your company remain vulnerable. You must also be prepared with a plan to handle adverse results. Testing at a third party analytical contract laboratory does not mean they assume all of your product’s or company’s liability, regardless of the lab’s reputation.
Ask your third party laboratory about any accreditations, certifications, and licenses that the lab should be accredited and/or certified for. Each state has different certifications and licensing requirements; make sure the entity you are using is licensed or certified for the services you need. Additionally, there is an accreditation called International Standards Organization (ISO) 17025 that is the pinnacle of third party laboratory accreditation. ISO 17025 is a set of protocols that your third party lab should follow to do everything it can to ensure your data is accurate and produced with reliable standards, control samples, matrix control samples and proficiency tests to verify the accuracy of the lab’s employees and methods, among a number of other criteria included in the standard. A number of different entities offer accreditation to ISO 17025 but it is important that the the accrediting body is also accredited to their ISO standard. Simply buying ISO 17025 compliant materials or standards does not mean that the vendor service or product is accredited to ISO 17025. Cannabis laboratories are just starting to implement and build systems around ISO 17025 but it has been prevalent in the third party lab business in many industries for decades and should be applied to the cannabis industry.
Visit your lab and understand their background and experience. Start by requesting a tour of the laboratory you choose; you want to know how things look behind the scenes. Is the lab orderly and doing its best to protect sample integrity? There may be a lot of things going on in the laboratory and it may look chaotic but it should be relatively clean. This prevents contamination and sample mix-ups. Further your relationship with your laboratory by understanding the laboratory’s experience and getting to know your laboratory staff. Consider the lab staff as part of your extended team, they are there to help you and help bring your product to market. The more they understand your goals, the more they can help.
Understand your lab’s history and background: Have they worked with products and/or analytes similar to yours? Have they worked with your sample matrix or one similar to it before? Their prior knowledge and laboratory experience, as it relates to your product, will help provide accurate data and navigate complex matrices.
Most importantly, a laboratory should be willing to release the data packet that is used to generate test results to the client. Releasing this data does not divulge any proprietary information of the lab. It is the laboratory’s job to provide you with the data upon request. It is important to note, looking at your raw data is not the same as looking at the laboratory method, also known as a work instruction or operating procedure. The lab most likely won’t give you the method as those are typically trade secrets, but there is no reason not to share with you the chromatography that the HPLC, GC, GC/MS, or LC/MS generated. This will demonstrate the lab’s sound analytical data and increase your confidence in the analysis you are receiving. When you pay for the results, you are also paying for your data and if your laboratory is not releasing that information to you at your request, you should be skeptical. This data needs to be able to stand up to audits and legal action.
Finally, confidentiality: your data is your data. Yes, you may have to report results to a governing body, but your laboratory should not be sharing your name and your data with anyone but your authorized list of contacts without your permission. They should not even disclose that you are their client without your prior authorization. Confidentiality is not just applicable to a few key employees at the laboratory, it is pertinent to everyone from the sample pickup driver, if you have one, to the chemists and upper level management.
Understanding your contract laboratory’s certifications, licenses, and accreditations, requesting and receiving raw data packages, and ensuring that you feel comfortable with the laboratory, its staff and their practices are key elements to ensuring a successful relationship with your laboratory.