Tag Archives: NELAC

Amy-Ankrum-headshot
Soapbox

Quality Assurance for the Cannabis Industry

By Amy Ankrum
No Comments
Amy-Ankrum-headshot

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.

Dr. Ed Askew
From The Lab

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

By Dr. Edward F. Askew
No Comments
Dr. Ed Askew

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s opinions based on his experience working in the laboratory industry. This is an opinion piece in a series of articles designed to highlight the potential problems that clients may run into with labs. 


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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how does that impact the user?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OGanalytical instruments.

New Cannabis Lab Rules In Oregon Aim to Curb Fraud

By Aaron G. Biros
No Comments
OGanalytical instruments.

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.

oganalyticalworkstation
The OG Analytical laboratory in Eugene, Oregon is working to comply with new regulations, including new sample collection rules

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.”

Roger Voelker
Rodger Voelker, lab director at OG Analytical laboratory

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.”

OGanalytical instruments.
Labs need very expensive instruments to perform all of the testing required by OHA

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.

oganalyticalsign
OG Analytical had to close its doors briefly to meet accreditation

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.