Proficiency Testing in the Cannabis Industry: An Inside Look
By Amanda Rigdon, Chief Technical Officer, Emerald Scientific
This presentation covers specifics of different proficiency testing schemes available to the cannabis industry. Additionally, specific challenges facing both laboratories and PT providers in the cannabis industry will be addressed. Data relating to residual solvent and potency proficiency testing will be presented.
Emerald Scientific recently announced their proficiency-testing program, The Emerald Test, has been approved by Colorado as a third party provider for proficiency testing in licensed cannabis laboratories. The Emerald Test, held twice annually, is an inter-laboratory comparison and proficiency test (ILC-PT), allowing data to be collected pertaining to the performance of laboratories on a national scale. Proficiency testing is designed to measure how accurately laboratories perform and is a critical tool for quality assurance.
Colorado requires labs to participate in a proficiency-testing program in order to be certified to conduct required testing on cannabis and cannabis products for safety and quality. According to the press release, Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, under the Department of Revenue, conducted an evaluation process to determine which applicants could meet the performance standards for regulatory compliance concerning proficiency testing. The contract was awarded to Emerald Scientific following this evaluation process.
According to Ken Groggel, director of the Proficiency Testing Program at Emerald Scientific, a number of states have recognized the need for independent proficiency testing as a required piece of regulatory compliance. “The Emerald Test Inter-Laboratory Comparison/PT is state approved in Washington & Colorado for cannabis testing laboratory licensure,” says Groggel. “States with cannabis or hemp production, as well as labs in other countries are now actively participating in the Emerald Test as a tool for quality improvement, efficiency upgrades and product safety.” He says the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division has contracted with Emerald Scientific to provide third party PT programs for microbial contaminants, residual solvents and pesticides.
Beginning in 2014, The Emerald Test has been offered twice a year and, in 2017, over 50 labs participated from 14 states and 2 countries. “Laboratories that have enrolled more than once have seen significant improvement in their results, an indicator of improved performance for industry customers,” says Groggel.
Proficiency testing is important for ensuring quality, safety and product content accuracy. “This should be the priority whether you are a grower, manufacturer, testing laboratory, regulatory entity, medical patient or adult use consumer,” says Groggel. It also helps labs meet regulatory requirements and achieve ISO 17025 accreditation. “Independent proficiency testing helps determine if the lab is able to deliver the services marketed to its customers,” says Groggel. “Regulatory agencies can use this information when licensing, monitoring & enforcing good science for public safety.”
As new states legalize cannabis and develop consumer protection regulations, proficiency testing programs can help labs demonstrate their commitment to responsible and accurate testing. “When PT results show the cannabis testing lab is capable it is up to the government to ensure accountability for performance on behalf of all its citizens,” says Groggel. Labs can enroll starting on September 25th in the Fall 2017 Emerald Test ILC/PT.
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.
Emerald Scientific’s Inter-Laboratory Comparison and Proficiency Test (ILC/PT) was recently approved in Washington as an official cannabis lab PT program, according to a press release. The Emerald Test program measures the accuracy of individual labs as well as comparing their results to other labs for indicators of variability and performance improvement.
Washington requires certified cannabis labs to participate in proficiency testing and Emerald Scientific’s tests is the only approved program in 4 out of 5 of the categories: potency, pesticide, heavy metals and residual solvent analysis. The most recent round of The Emerald Test showed broad improvements in many of the testing categories.
Perry Johnson, a third-party lab accreditation service for ISO/IEC 17025 also decided that The Emerald Test “meets the audit criteria for the proficiency test participation requirement for the accreditation,’ according to the press release. The proficiency test is a key component of quality assurance, which is a major requirement for labs seeking ISO 17025 accreditation. “The Emerald Scientific PT ensures that the cannabis testing labs are performing their function to the best of their ability,” says Reggie Gaudino Ph.D., vice president of Science, Genetics and Intellectual Property at Steep Hill Labs. “Any lab that isn’t participating and exceeding the minimal passing requirements should be viewed as suspect. It’s that important.”
According to the press release, Emerald Scientific’s spring 2017 program has expanded from 5 to 6 tests. The residual solvents and pesticide analysis portions offer more comprehensive testing that previously. “The other tests include 2 microbial panels and a Potency Test, which measures 5 cannabinoids including THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA, and CBN,” says the press release. “New this spring is the Heavy Metals Test, which is offered in 2 parts, one solution for cannabis heavy metals and the other in a hemp matrix.”
The Emerald Test advisory panel recently convened to review the results from the Fall 2016 round of the semi-annual Inter-Laboratory Comparison and Proficiency Test (ILC/PT), ahead of the third annual Emerald Conference just a few weeks away. After reviewing and analyzing the results, the panel noticed a significant improvement across the board over their Spring 2016 round of proficiency testing.
Emerald Scientific’s ILC/PT program is a tool laboratories use to check how accurate their testing capabilities are compared to other labs. A lab receiving The Emerald Test badge indicates their testing meets the criteria established by the panel to demonstrate competency. This means that they were within two standard deviations of the consensus mean for all analytes tested, according to Wes Burk, vice president of Emerald Scientific. He says the labs performed better than expected on both the microbial and pesticide tests.
Each lab has access to raw, anonymized data including a consensus mean, z-scores and kernel density plots. This round measured how well 35 cannabis labs perform in testing for potency, pesticides, residual solvents and microbial contaminants such as E. coli, Salmonella, Coliform, yeast and mold.
The advisory panel includes: Robert Martin, Ph.D., founder of CW Analytical, Cynthia Ludwig, director of technical services at AOCS, Rodger Voelker, Ph.D., lab director, OG Analytical, Tammie Mussitsch, QA manager at RJ Lee Group, Shawn Kassner, senior scientist at Neptune & Company, Inc., Jim Roe, scientific director at Steep Hill Labs, Chris Hudalla, Ph.D., founder and chief scientific officer at ProVerde Labs, Sytze Elzinga, The Werc Shop and Amanda Rigdon, Chief Technical Officer at Emerald Scientific.
According to Amanda Rigdon, chief technical officer at Emerald Scientific, the labs performed very well in potency, residual solvents and microbial testing PTs. This is the first year the proficiency testing includes pesticides. “All of the labs did a great job identifying every pesticide in our hemp-based PT, but some more work will most likely have to be done to bring quantitative results in line,” says Rigdon. “Since this was the first pesticide PT we had offered, we were pretty conservative when choosing analytes and their levels. For the most part, analytes and levels were taken from the Oregon pesticide list, which is widely recognized to be the most reasonable and applicable pesticide list out there to date.” They covered pesticides of high concern, like abamectin and Myclobutanil, but also included a wide range of other pesticides that labs are expected to encounter.
Shawn Kassner, senior scientist at Neptune & Company, Inc., believes microbial contamination proficiency testing should be a priority for improving public health and safety going forward. Although five participating labs did not receive badges for the microbial contamination PTs, panel members say the overall performance was really quite good. “Microbiology testing are essential analyses for all cannabis products and it’s just slower in regulatory implementation than potency testing,” says Kassner. “The risk of Salmonella and E. coli to an individual using a medical cannabis product could be very life threatening. Microbiology contamination is a huge concern for any public health agency, which is why we have seen that microbiology testing is usually the first analytical test required after potency.” Kassner notes that there were few outliers and with each Emerald PT program, he is seeing an improvement in overall laboratory performance.
For The Emerald Test’s next round, the panel hopes to make some improvements in the test’s robustness and consistency, like obtaining assigned values for all samples and comparing to a consensus mean. “We want to develop permanent badge criteria, streamline the appeals process and possibly implement a qualitative performance review in the pesticide PT,” says Burk. For the next round of pesticide PTs, they want to build a better list of pesticides to cover more states, allowing labs to pick a set based on their state’s regulations. Burk says they also want to collect data on whether or not matrix-matched curves were used for pesticides.
Rodger Voelker, Cynthia Ludwig and Shawn Kassner, all members of the advisory panel, will be speaking at the Emerald Conference, discussing some of their findings from this round of proficiency testing. The Emerald Conference will take place February 2nd and 3rd in San Diego, CA.
Emerald Scientific recently announced results for their latest round of the semi-annual Inter-Laboratory Comparison and Proficiency Test (ILC/PT), and the outcomes may bode well for one of the most vital quality and safety aspects of the cannabis industry. According to Cynthia Ludwig, director of technical services at the American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS), there are no official methods for cannabis testing from an internationally recognized non-profit organization known to provide ‘official methods’ to various industries, so method validation needs to be done in-house, which is very costly and time-consuming. Cannabis testing labs are charged with the difficult task of providing honest, consistent and accurate results for potency, pesticide residue, residual solvents and contaminants. AOCS partnered with Emerald Scientific in this round of ILC/PT and preformed the statistical analysis and reports. For the first time in The Emerald Test’s history, participants were able to review all of the raw data and were given a consensus mean, z-scores and kernel density plots in order to compare themselves to other participants.
Emerald Scientific’s ILC/PT program measures how accurately a cannabis lab performs along with comparing it to other labs for an indicator of variability and ways to improve, according to a press release. 46 cannabis laboratories participated in The Emerald Test’s latest round of proficiency testing for potency and residual solvents. Cynthia Ludwig sits on the advisory panel to give direction and industry insights, addressing specific needs for cannabis laboratories. Kirsten Blake, director of sales at Emerald Scientific, believes that proficiency testing is the first step in bringing consistency to cannabis analytics. “The goal is to create some level of industry standards for testing,” says Blake. Participants in the program are given data sets, judged by a consensus mean, so labs can see their score compared to the rest of the cannabis testing industry.
Proficiency tests like The Emerald Test give labs the ability to view how consistent their results are compared to the industry’s results overall. According to Ludwig, the results were pleasantly surprising. “The results were better than expected across the board; the vast majority of labs were within the acceptable range,” says Ludwig. The test is anonymous so individual labs can participate freely. “The overall performance of the participating labs in the Potency and Solvent Residue Emerald Test were very encouraging,” says Ludwig. “All but a couple of labs had the majority of their results fall within two standard deviations of the consensus mean, which is generally accepted as being within the acceptable limits to most evaluators.” Although requirements for labs testing cannabis differ in each state, Ludwig says the results show the ability of these labs to competently perform the tests and generate reliable results. “Given the lack of harmonized regulations, this is a testament to the self-imposed quality standards the industry is trying to achieve.”
Among the laboratories that participated, Steep Hill Laboratories joined the test at two of their locations. Reggie Gaudino, Ph.D., vice president of scientific operations and director of genetics at Steep Hill Laboratories, believes that tests like the Emerald Test ensure that the cannabis labs are performing their function to the best of their ability, which is extraordinarily important. “We, and not just Steep Hill, but all testing labs, are the custodians of quality and safety for the cannabis industry,” says Gaudino. “If we are not doing our best to ensure the quality of our science is beyond reproach, then we are failing the consumer; if even one person gets sick or dies because a lab cut corners and tried to make extra money, that is one person too many.” Accurate testing comes from internal and external proficiency testing.
According to Gaudino, how cannabis labs perform in The Emerald Test can affect every aspect of cannabis consumption: “Correct dosing from potency analysis reports, identification of as many, if not all, active compounds known to enable the consumer to make a determination as to which strain, edible or concentrate would be most beneficial and assurance that there are no harmful chemicals or biological contaminants on cannabis or cannabis derivatives; all of it stems from being able to accurately test.” Gaudino is a major proponent of The Emerald Test because it provides some measure of consistency and accuracy in the cannabis industry. Until more consistent regulations for cannabis testing are formed on a national scale, self-imposed quality standards such as The Emerald Test helps labs, growers and consumers know they are getting reliable data.