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Discussing Lab Accreditation: The New ISO 17025:2017 Standard

By Aaron G. Biros
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At this year’s Food Safety Consortium a couple weeks ago, the newly launched Cannabis Quality Track featured a number of panels and presentations that highlighted the many intersections between food safety and cannabis. One particular topic of interest was measuring the quality and safety of cannabis products through laboratory testing. At the event this year, representatives from the leading laboratory accreditation bodies in the country sat together on a panel titled Accreditation, Regulation & Certification: Cannabis Labs and Production.

Representatives from ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB), the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) and Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation (PJLA) discussed the new ISO standard, common issues that labs encounter when getting accredited, the future of the cannabis lab industry and certifications for food safety and quality.FSC logo

The panelists included:

  • Tracy Szerszen, president/operations manager, PJLA
  • Natalia Larrimer, engagement and program development manager, ANAB
  • Lauren Maloney, food safety program accreditation manager, Perry Johnson Registrars Food Safety, Inc. (PJRFSI)
  • Chris Gunning, life sciences accreditation manager with A2LA
Tracy Szerszen
Tracy Szerszen, president/operations manager, PJLA

The new ISO 17025:2017 standard was a topic addressed pretty early in the panel. Tracy Szerszen introduced the topic with a recap of the 2005 standard. “With 17025, for those that are familiar with the older version, 2005, there are really two sections of the standard for that one,” says Szerszen. “The newer standard is a little bit different, but there is a quality management system review that we do and we look at the laboratory to ensure that they are testing appropriately based on what they applied for. So, for cannabis labs, they typically have the same scope in types of methods with respect to microbiology and chemistry, and we are making sure they are following the standard from a technical standpoint, meaning they have the right equipment, the appropriate personnel and also have a quality management system.”

Chris Gunning followed that up with a closer look at the changes coming to the new 2017 standard. “If you are familiar with the 2005 version, you know that a lot of the clauses started out with a ‘you shall have a policy and procedure for doing X,’” says Gunning. “One of the major changes to the 2017 version is it gives laboratories more latitude on whether they need to have a policy/procedure to do certain things.” Gunning says the 2017 version is much more of an outcome-based standard. “As far as assessing to it, it becomes a little harder from our side because we can’t say you have to have this quality manual or you have to have this procedure that were going to assess you to. We are more open to looking at the outcomes.”

Christopher Gunning, life sciences accreditation manager with A2LA
Christopher Gunning, life sciences accreditation manager with A2LA

The most interesting change to the ISO standard comes with addressing the idea of risk. “One of the newest concepts in this standard is risk and how you assess your risk to your organization how you assess risk of impartiality, how you assess your measurement uncertainty when you are creating decision rules,” says Gunning. “Those are the big concepts that have changed in the 2017 standard in that it is more outcome-based and introducing the concept of risk more.”

After discussing some of the broader changes coming to the 2017 version, the panelists began delving into some common pitfalls and issues labs face when trying to get accredited. “From our experience, in Michigan, the new standard was written into the regulations, but a lot of labs were already accredited to 2005,” says Szerszen. “So, we actually contacted the state and explained to them that they have three years to transition. And some states will say ‘too bad, we want the 2017 ISO,’ so some of the cannabis labs are asking us to quickly come back so they can get appropriate licensing in the state and do a transition audit quickly.” She says most states seem to be comfortable with the current transition period everyone has, but it certainly requires some discussion and explanation to get on the same page with state regulators. “November 29, 2020 is the deadline for moving to the new 2017 standard.”

In addition to state requirements like traceability and security on top of an ISO 17025 accreditation, labs can run into issues not typically encountered in other testing markets, as Gunning mentioned during the panel. “One of the hardest parts of getting accredited is the need for properly validated methods, for all the different matrices in samples,” says Gunning. “Some of the biggest hurdles for new labs getting assessed are validation and the availability of reference materials and proficiency testing samples that meet their state requirements.” Those are just a handful of hurdles that labs aren’t usually anticipating when getting accredited.

Natalia Larrimer, engagement and program development manager, ANAB

Another big topic that generated a lot of dialogue during the panel was the need for a national accreditation standard for cannabis testing labs, one that Natalia Larrimer is advocating for. “Many laboratories are operating facilities in more than one state and what they are facing is a different set of criteria for laboratory recognition in each state, says Larrimer. “One initiative that we would love to see more support for, is a set of uniform requirements nationally. ACIL is currently working on developing these type of requirements which would be in addition to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard and specific for cannabis industry…” Larrimer says she’d like to see these requirements recognized nationally to get labs on the same page across multiple states. “This includes requirements for things like security, traceability, proficiency testing, sampling and personnel competence. The industry would greatly benefit from a uniform cannabis testing program across the US, so that testing facilities in Oregon are operating to the same criteria as facilities in California or Colorado, etc.”

The panelists went into greater detail on issues facing the cannabis lab testing industry, but also delved into certifications for food safety and quality, an important new development as the infused products market grows tremendously. Stay tuned for more highlights from this panel and other talks from the Food Safety Consortium. We will be following up this article with another that’ll shed some light on food safety certifications. Stay tuned for more!

Ask The Expert: Exploring Cannabis Laboratory Accreditation Part 4

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we spoke with Michelle Bradac, senior accreditation officer at A2LA, to learn the basics of cannabis laboratory accreditation. In the second part, we sat down with Roger Brauninger, A2LA Biosafety Program manager, to learn why states are looking to lab accreditation in their regulations for the cannabis industry. In the third part, we heard from Michael DeGregorio, chief executive officer of Konocti Analytics, Inc., discussing method development in the cannabis testing industry and his experience with getting accredited.

In the fourth and final part of this series, we sit down with Susan Audino, Ph.D., an A2LA lead assessor and instructor, laboratory consultant and board member for the Center for Research on Environmental Medicine in Maryland. Dr. Audino will share some insights into method validation and the most technical aspects of laboratory accreditation.

Susan Audino, Ph.D.

Susan Audino obtained her Ph.D. in Chemistry with an analytical chemistry major, physical and biochemistry minor areas. She currently owns and operates a consulting firm to service chemical and biological laboratories. Susan has been studying the chemistry and applications of cannabinoids and provides scientific and technical guidance to cannabis dispensaries, testing laboratories and medical personnel. Dr. Audino’s interest most directly involves cannabis consumer safety and protection, and promotes active research towards the development of official test methods specifically for the cannabis industry, and to advocate appropriate clinical research. In addition to serving on Expert Review Panels, she is also chairing the first Cannabis Advisory Panel and working group with AOAC International, is a member of the Executive Committee of the ASTM Cannabis Section and has consulted to numerous cannabis laboratories and state regulatory bodies.

CannabisIndustryJournal: What are the some of the most significant technical issues facing an accreditation body when assessing a cannabis-testing laboratory?

Susan: From the AB perspective, there needs to be a high level of expertise to evaluate the merits and scientific soundness of laboratory-developed analytical test methods. Because there are presently no standard or consensus test methods available, laboratories are required to develop their own methods, which need to be valid. Validating methods require a rigorous series of tests and statistical analyses to ensure the correctness and reliability of the laboratory’s product, which is– the test report.

CIJ: When is method validation required and how does this differ from system suitability?

Susan: Method validation is required whenever the laboratory modifies a currently accepted consensus or standard test method, or when the laboratory develops its own method. Method validation is characterized by a series of analytical performance criteria including determinations of accuracy, precision, linearity, specification, limit of detection, and limit of quantitation. The determination of system suitability requires a series of deliberate variations of parameters to ensure the complete system, that is all instrument(s) as well as the analytical method, is maintained throughout the entire analytical process. Traditionally, method validation has been referred to as “ruggedness” and system suitability as “robustness.”

CIJ: What are the most important aspects of method validation that must be taken into account? 

Susan: In keeping with the FDA guidelines and other accepted criteria, I tend to recommend the International Conference on Harmonization (ICH), particularly Q 2A, which is a widely recognized program that discusses the pertinent characteristics of method validation. This include: method specification, linearity, range, accuracy, and precision (e.g., repeatability, intermediate precision, reproducibility). As mentioned earlier, system suitability is also a critical element and although related to method validation, does require its own protocol.

CIJ: What three areas do you see the laboratory having the hardest time with in preparing for accreditation? 

Susan: My responses to this question assume the laboratory employs appropriate instruments to perform the necessary analyses, and that the laboratory employs personnel with experience and knowledge appropriate to develop test methods and interpret test results.

  • By and large, method validation that is not appropriate to the scope of their intended work. Driving this is an overall lack of information about method validation. Oftentimes there is an assumption that multiple recoveries of CRMs constitute “validation”. While it may be one element, this only demonstrates the instrument’s suitability. My recommendation is to utilize any one of a number of good single laboratory validation protocols. Options include, but are not limited to AOAC International, American Chemical Society, ASTM, and ICH protocols.
  • Second is the lack of statistically sound sampling protocols for those laboratories that are mandated by their governing states to go to the field to sample the product from required batches. Sampling protocols needs to address the heterogeneity of the plant, defining the batch, and determining/collecting a sample of sufficient quantity that will be both large enough and representative of the population, and to provide the laboratory an adequate amount from which to sub-sample.
  • Third, sample preparation. This is somewhat intertwined with my previous point. Once an appropriate sample has been collected, preparation must be relevant to the appropriate technology and assay. It is unlikely that a laboratory can perform a single preparation that is amenable to comprehensive testing.

Massachusetts Lawmakers Reach Compromise on Cannabis Bill

By Aaron G. Biros
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On Election Day last year, voters in Massachusetts approved a measure to legalize recreational cannabis. With recreational sales beginning in July of 2018, lawmakers have tried to get a bill through the state legislature to settle on, among other things, a tax rate and regulatory framework.

On Wednesday, multiple news outlets reported that the legislature has reached a compromise on a bill that would change the measure that voters passed to allow for lawmakers to implement higher taxes, a strategy on local bans and a regulatory framework, reports The Boston Globe.

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MPP logo for the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Campaign in Massachusetts

In a statement to supporters, Matt Schweich, director of state campaigns at Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the biggest changes are in local control and taxation. “After weeks of persistent advocacy from Massachusetts residents, the Senate and House have reached a compromise that largely respects the will of the people,” says Schweich. “The legislation adjusts the local control policy, allowing local government officials in towns that voted “no” on the 2016 ballot initiative to ban marijuana businesses until December 2019. For towns that voted “yes” in 2016, any bans must be placed on a local ballot for voters to approve.” Therefore if a town wants to ban cannabis sales, they need to bring it to a vote for the people to decide. 72% of the population voted in favor of the ballot initiative. “The maximum tax rate — which depends on whether towns adopt optional local taxes — will increase from 12% to 20%,” says Schweich. “Under the bill, the state tax will be 17%, and the local option will be 3%.” A major push behind increasing the tax rates concerned lawmakers’ worries that the original 12% tax rate would not cover regulatory costs and government expenditures on the industry.

Boston, MA
Photo: Trenton Kelley, Flickr

The ballot initiative created the Cannabis Control Commission, the regulatory body overseeing the industry, with three board members. That agency will remain in the new bill, just with five board members that will write the rules on things like marketing, safety, fines and penalties and fair business practices.

Schweich says the MPP helped orchestrate over 1,000 calls to legislators, urging them to reject the House’s version of the bill, which some have called draconian. “The bill isn’t perfect, and we preferred the original language of the ballot initiative,” says Schweich. “However, given how problematic the House bill was, we are satisfied with the final compromise.”

The bill is expected to pass votes in both the House and Senate on Thursday and Governor Charlie Baker is expected to sign the bill that same day.