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Top 10 Common Findings Detected During Cannabis Laboratory Assessments: A Guide to Assist with Accreditation

By Tracy Szerszen
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With the cannabis industry growing rapidly, laboratories are adapting to the new market demand for medical cannabis testing in accordance to ISO/IEC 17025. Third-party accreditation bodies, such as Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), conduct these assessments to determine that laboratories are following relevant medical cannabis testing standard protocols in order to detect potency and contaminant levels in cannabis. Additionally, laboratories are required to implement and maintain a quality management system throughout their facility. Obtaining accreditation is a challenge for laboratories initially going through the process. There are many requirements outlined in the standard that laboratories must adhere to in order to obtain a final certificate of accreditation. Laboratories should evaluate the ISO 17025 standard thoroughly, receive adequate training, implement the standard within their facility and conduct an internal audit in order to prepare for a third-party assessment. Being prepared will ultimately reduce the number of findings detected during the on-site assessment. Listed below is research and evidence gathered by PJLA to determine the top ten findings by clause specifically in relation to cannabis testing laboratories.

PJLA chart
The top 10 findings by clause

4.2: Management System

  • Defined roles and responsibilities of management system and its quality policies, including a structured outline of supporting procedures, requirements of the policy statement and establishment of objectives.
  • Providing evidence of establishing the development, implementation and maintenance of the management system appropriate to the scope of activities and the continuous improvement of its effectiveness.
  • Ensuring the integrity of the management system during planned and implemented changes.
  • Communication from management of the importance of meeting customer, statutory and regulatory requirements

4.3: Document Control

  • Establishing and maintaining procedures to control all documents that form the management system.
  • The review of document approvals, issuance and changes.

4.6: Purchasing Services and Supplies

  • Policies and procedures for the selection and purchasing of services and supplies, inspection and verification of services and supplies
  • Review and approval of purchasing documents containing data describing the services and supplies ordered
  • Maintaining records for the evaluation of suppliers of critical consumables, supplies and services, which affect the quality of laboratory outputs.

4.13: Control of Records

  • Establishing and maintaining procedures for identification, collection, indexing, access, filing, storage and disposal of quality and technical records.
  • Providing procedures to protect and back-up records stored electronically and to prevent unauthorized access.

4.14: Internal Audits

  • Having a predetermined schedule and procedure for conducting internal audits of its activities and that addresses all elements that verify its compliance of its established management system and ISO/IEC 17025
  • Completing and recording corrective actions arising from internal audits in a timely manner, follow-up activities of implementation and verification of effectiveness of corrective actions taken.

5.2: Personnel

  • Laboratory management not ensuring the competence and qualifications of all personnel who operate specific equipment, perform tests, evaluate test results and sign test reports. Lack of personnel undergoing training and providing appropriate supervision
  • Providing a training program policies and procedures for an effective training program that is appropriate; identification and review of training needs and the program’s effectiveness to demonstrate competence.
  • Lack of maintaining records of training actions taken, current job descriptions for managerial, technical and key support personnel involved in testing

5.4: Test and Calibration Methods and Method Validation

  • Utilization of appropriate laboratory methods and procedures for all testing within the labs scope; including sampling, handling, transport, storage and preparation of items being tested, and where appropriate, a procedure for an estimation of the measurement of uncertainty and statistical techniques for analysis
  • Up-to-date instructions on the use and operation of all relevant equipment, and on the handling and preparation of items for testing
  • Introduction laboratory-developed and non-standard methods and developing procedures prior to implementation.
  • Validating non-standard methods in accordance with the standard
  • Not completing appropriate checks in a systematic manner for calculations and data transfers

5.6: Measurement Traceability

  • Ensuring that equipment used has the associated measurement uncertainty needed for traceability of measurements to SI units or certified reference materials and completing intermediate checks needed according to a defined procedure and schedules.
  • Not having procedures for safe handling, transport, storage and use of reference standards and materials that prevent contamination or deterioration of its integrity.

5.10: Reporting the Results

  • Test reports not meeting the standard requirements, statements of compliance with accounting for uncertainty, not providing evidence for measurement traceability, inaccurately amending reports.

SOP-3: Use of the Logo

  • Inappropriate use of PJLA’s logo on the laboratories test reports and/or website.
  • Using the incorrect logo for the testing laboratory or using the logo without prior approval from PJLA.
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.

Amy-Ankrum-headshot
Soapbox

Quality Assurance for the Cannabis Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schebella, Celia photo

Designing the Perfect Cannabis Edible in California

By Celia Schebella
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Schebella, Celia photo

Are you a product designer in the edible cannabis market? Well, you live at the intersection of the food and pharmaceutical industries and need to know both worlds, utilizing best-practice product development principles, regardless of which industry you are working in. In the cannabis industry, this means knowing your chemistry principles, food science, food safety, Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs, applicable to the food industry) along with the more intense records and documentation requirements of the pharmaceutical industry.

California is the most recent state to implement legal recreational cannabis. It is estimated to deliver $7.7B in sales by 2021, including a reduction of medical use cannabis and an uptake of adult recreational use. How often do you live at the inception of such a potentially enormous market? Not often, so product developers, here is an opportunity. However, with that opportunity comes the responsibility. A recent emergency legislation adopted by the California Cannabis Safety Branch states:

Operational Requirements Licensees must have written procedures for inventory control, quality control, transportation, security and cannabis waste disposal. Descriptions of these procedures or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) must be submitted with the annual license application. Cannabis waste cannot be sold, must be placed in a secured area and be disposed of according to applicable waste management laws. Good manufacturing practices must be followed to ensure production occurs in a sanitary and hazard-free environment, cannabis products are contaminant free and THC levels are consistent throughout the product and within required limits. Extractions using CO2 or a volatile solvent must be conducted using a closed-loop system, certified by a California-licensed engineer. Volatile, hydrocarbon-based solvents must have at least 99% purity. Finally, volatile solvent, CO2 and ethanol extractions must be certified by the local fire code official.

Part of this emergency legislation for all California cannabis product manufacturers is the newly published GMP requirements, which appear to be a combination of food, supplements and HACCP requirements. Helpful resources to learn more about this new California emergency legislation impacting cannabis product manufacturers can be found at the California Manufactured Cannabis Safety Branch with the details of the emergency cannabis regulations.

Once developers have decided on a product, research and education to develop a good understanding of the regulatory environment is a must. For example, in order to develop compliant cannabis edibles, compliance with state, and in some cases local regulations, for food and cannabis must be met. Proactive compliance is a big part of designing a successful product in the most efficient manner.The attention to detail here will create a safe and satisfying experience for consumers as they receive a consistent product every time.

As a product developer you must first know the incoming cannabis plant characteristics to determine what type of cannabinoids they contain to determine what types you wish to source. This requires a strong and well documented  supplier program that can identify reliable suppliers of high purity and consistent cannabis raw materials, the same principles that are typically required of food manufacturers. When looking for examples of credible ingredient supplier programs, looking at those used by the food industry is a good start. Make sure supplier management programs apply to all the raw materials and direct-contact packaging that you plan to use in your new product.

Once reliable sources of raw material have been secured, the next challenge is to conduct periodic tests of cannaboids levels found in your incoming cannabis. With this information, you need to adjust blending amounts to reflect the correct cannaboid dose in the finished ready-to-eat (RTE) product. Like any other medicinal product, the active ingredient dosage will directly impact the effect on the consumer, thus it is important that you, the manufacturer, are completely aware of the exact cannaboid levels in your incoming ingredients, your blending amounts and your final product levels. This will require a robust either in-plant or commercial laboratory testing program. There is a great deal of technology and chemical analyses available to help dose the product accurately. This must also include robust testing and verification steps. If a consumer of your product were to over-consume from “normal” consumption rates of your cannabis-based food product, the liability, both financial, civil, ethical and criminal would fall on your company. The attention to detail here will create a safe and satisfying experience for consumers as they receive a consistent product every time.

design your products with commercial manufacturing viability in mindOnce regulatory responsibilities for manufacturing and marketing a cannabis-based food product have been met, so that you may sell a compliant and consistent product, it is time to add some creative juices and make the product interesting and enjoyable to consumers. With cannabis edibles, for example, explore what sort of food is appealing to consumers. Consider when, where and with whom your potential customers would be eating that food. Evaluate the best packaging design and size to suit the occasion. Ensure the packaging is child resistant yet practical for adult consumers. And above all manufacture a food that is delicious. Curiosity will attract your customers for the first time but quality and consistency will keep them coming back.

Product developers are usually fantastic at developing great lab scale products, but part of a developer’s job is to ensure that the design and manufacturing process is scalable for consistent and compliant commercial manufacturing. So design your products with commercial manufacturing viability in mind. Try to minimize the number of ingredients whilst still making a consumer-desirable product. Finally, rationalize your ingredients across your portfolio to avoid overcrowding the warehouse and risking expired ingredients.

If successful, your consumers will desire your product, your compliance team will be satisfied, your manufacturing partners will be thankful, the State of California will determine that you are fully compliant and your sales team’s job will have great business and professional success. In the end, you will have developed and launched a successful legacy product!

Dr. Ed Askew
From The Lab

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

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. 


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.”

HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the Cannabis Industry: Part 4

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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HACCP

In Part 3 of this series on HACCP, Critical Control Points (CCPs), validation of CCPs and monitoring of CCPs were defined. When a HACCP plan identifies the correct CCP, validates the CCP as controlling the hazard and monitors the CCP, a potential hazard is controlled in the manufacturing and packaging of cannabis-infused edibles. The food industry is big on documentation. If it’s not documented, it did not happen. The written hazard analysis, validation study and monitoring of CCPs create necessary records. It is these records that will prove to a customer, auditor or inspector that the edible is safe. Here in Part 4, more recordkeeping is added on for deviation from a CCP, verification and a recall plan. 

Take Corrective Action When There Is a Deviation from a Critical Control Point

Your food safety team conducts a hazard analysis, identifies CCPs and decides on monitoring devices, frequency and who is responsible for monitoring. You create an electronic or paper record of the monitoring for every batch of edible to document critical limits were met. Despite all your good efforts, something goes wrong. Maybe you lose power. Maybe the equipment jams. Nothing is perfect when dealing with ingredients, equipment and personnel. Poop happens. Because you are prepared before the deviation, your employees know what to do. With proper training, the line worker knows what to do with the equipment, the in-process product and who to inform. In most cases the product is put on hold for evaluation, and the equipment is fixed to keep running. The choices for the product include release, rework or destroy. Every action taken needs to be recorded on a corrective action form and documents attached to demonstrate the fate of the product on hold. All the product from the batch must be accounted for through documentation. If the batch size is 100 lb, then the fate of 100 lb must be documented.

Verify Critical Control Points Are Monitored and Effective

First, verification and validation are frequently confused by the best of food safety managers. Validation was discussed as part of determining CCPs in Part 3. Validation proves that following a CCP is the right method for safety. I call validation, “one and done.” Validation is done once for a CCP; while verification is ongoing at a CCP. For example, the time and temperature for effective milk pasteurization is very well known and dairies refer to the FDA Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. Dairies do not have to prove over and over that a combination of time and temperature is effective (validation), because that has been proven.

I encourage you to do as much as you can to prepare for a recall.A CCP is monitored to prove the safety parameters are met. Pasteurization is an example of the most commonly monitored parameters of time and temperature. At a kill step like pasteurization, the employee at that station is responsible for accurate monitoring of time and temperature. The company managers and owners should feel confident that CCPs have been identified and data are being recorded to prove safety. Verification is not done by the employee at the station but by a supervisor or manager. The employee at the station is probably not a member of the food safety team that wrote the HACCP plan, but the supervisor or manager that performs verification may be. Verification is proving that what was decided by the food safety team is actually implemented and consistently done.

Verification is abundant and can be very simple. First, every record associated with a CCP is reviewed by a supervisor or manager, i.e. someone who did not create the record. This can be a simple initial and date at the bottom of the record. Every corrective action form with its associated evaluation is verified in the same way. When HACCP plans are reviewed, that is verification. Verification activities include 1) testing the concentration of a sanitizer, 2) reviewing Certificates of Analysis from suppliers, 3) a review of the packaging label and 4) all chemical and microbiological testing of ingredients and product. The HACCP plan identifies CCPs. Verification confirms that implementation is running according to the plan.

Verification is like a parent who tells their child to clean their room. The child walks to their room and later emerges to state that the room is clean. The parent can believe the word of the child, if the child has been properly trained and has a history of successfully cleaning their room. At some frequency determined by the parent, the room will get a parental visual check. This is verification. In the food industry, CCP monitoring records and corrective action must be reviewed within seven days after the record is created and preferably before the food leaves the facility. Other verification activities are done in a timely manner as determined by the company.

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

Write a Recall Plan

In the food industry, auditors and FDA inspectors require a written recall plan. Mock recalls are recommended and always provide learning and improvement to systems. Imagine your edible product contains sugar, and your sugar supplier notifies you that the sugar is recalled due to glass pieces. Since you are starting with the supplier, that is one step back. Your documentation of ingredients includes lot numbers, dates and quantity of sugar.You keep good records and they show you exactly how much of the recalled lot was received. Next you gather your batch records. Batches with the recalled sugar are identified, and the total amount of recalled sugar is reconciled. You label every batch of your edible with a lot code, and you identify the amount of each affected lot and the customer. You have a press release template in which you add the specific information about the recall and affected lots. You notify every customer where the affected edible was shipped with a plan to return or destroy the edible. When you notify your customers, you go one step forward.

How would your company do in this situation? I have witnessed the difficulties a company faces in a recall when I was brought in to investigate the source of a pathogen. Food safety people in my workshops who have worked through a recall tell me that it was the worst time of their life. I encourage you to do as much as you can to prepare for a recall. Here are two good resources:

Please comment on this blog post below. I love feedback!

Cannabis Micropropagation, Cost Analysis and Viruses

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Cannabis Cultivation Virtual Conference Part 6

Cannabis Micropropagation, Cost Analysis and Viruses

By Dr. Hope Jones, Chief Scientific Officer of C4 laboratories

  • This presentation will educate the global cannabis industry (including hemp) on tissue culture micropropagation by providing a summary that will show some of the essential concepts behind tissue culture. Virus and pathogen elimination and the importance of a good IPM regime.
  • As well as the economics of the micropropagation industry, design and implementation plans from the small growers to the large in need of understanding the true potential of tissue culture micropropagation, and how to implement and how to avoid costly mistakes.

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.