Someone approached me the other day, wanting to know what was the real story about hemp and CBD.
He said he had “a guy” who gave him a CBD salve as part of a study, supposedly “the good stuff,” to help his knee. He couldn’t understand why he was the only one out of 20 people in the group that felt no relief. He happened to have this CBD salve with him, along with a second brand that he hadn’t yet tried. The “good stuff” had slick, colorful packaging, a beautiful logo and powerful marketing messages about the phytocannabinoids and essential oils in the jar. The other CBD product was in a dull grey tin, an ugly duckling, and not nearly so impressive on the outside- I’ll call it “Homer’s Brew.” My friend dismissed Homer’s Brew outright, as not even worth trying. I told him that not all CBD products are created equal, that you can’t always believe the claims on the package, including the cannabinoid potency displayed on the label.
I told him to search for the Certificate of Analysis (COA) for each of the two products, specifically, lab test results validating the CBD dosage per serving, and also the breakdown of pesticides, heavy metals and microbials. He had to do a little digging and emailing, as it wasn’t readily available for either company, but the next day, results were in. The “good stuff” with the slick packaging and bold claims had mere trace amounts of CBD, with some hemp and essential oils- no tests for pesticides or contaminants of any kind. Hmmm, no wonder he was disappointed. Homer’s Brew’s COA came in with flying colors – a reputable lab had confirmed safe levels of pesticides, pathogens and heavy metals, and the CBD level was substantial, with a detailed cannabinoid breakdown in the lab report.
In spite of the varying legality of hemp-derived CBD products from one state to the next, consumers are gobbling up costly CBD salves, tinctures and edibles in markets, gyms and online. Like moths to a flame, they are pulled in by the CBD name and lofty promises, not always understanding what they are getting for their money. They trust that these products are safe, licensed, inspected and regulated by some agency, otherwise, “they wouldn’t be on the shelves, would they?”
In spite of the 2018 Farm Bill, FDA still has not recognized the legality of products containing hemp-derived CBD, but some states have gone ahead and given them a green light anyway- check with your own jurisdiction to be sure. In the meantime, hemp-derived CBD products are slipping through the regulatory cracks, depending on the state. It is confusing, for sure, and buyer beware.
Separate yourself from the pack of snake-oil salesmen. Test your products for safety and accurate cannabinoid potency, and make a Certificate of Analysis readily available to your customers. Boldly portray your transparency and belief in the quality of your products through this COA.
Providing this information to consumers is the best path to success- safe, satisfied customers who will refer to their friends and family, and most likely come back for more of your “good stuff.”
Encore Labs is a full-service cannabis testing lab in Pasadena, California, providing all testing needs required by California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC). The BCC requires that cannabis products being sold in licensed dispensaries be tested for cannabinoid potency, heavy metals, microbial impurities, moisture content and water activity, mycotoxins, residual pesticides, residual solvents and processing chemicals, foreign materials and terpenes. It is Encore Labs’ goal to guarantee the quality and potency of all cannabis products while ensuring regulatory guidelines are met in the state of California.
Encore Labs provides quick turnaround times on a consistent basis. They take pride in offering excellent customer service without diminishing the quality of the work that they do. Their team of laboratory analysts/technicians are passionate about the industry and will never compromise their integrity just to make an extra buck.
Co-Founder, Spencer Wong, mentions their personal connection with clients. “Our customers don’t just see us as their testing laboratory, they see Encore Labs as their laboratory partner,” says Wong. “Besides performing analytical testing, we have worked with many customers to help formulate new products and do root cause analysis to pinpoint inefficiencies in their manufacturing operations and cultivation farms.”
ISO/IEC 17025 Accreditation has been extremely valuable to Encore Labs, especially regarding the new cannabis testing industry. “Our experience with Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. has been great and has allowed for a very smooth and straightforward initial accreditation process. Their staff has been knowledgeable and responsive every step of the way,” says Wong.
Accreditation establishes that steps are being taken regarding quality and that laboratories are meeting and exceeding the highest testing standards. It also provides further assurance and confidence in data results as well as validated methods, staff training procedures, equipment calibration and successful participation in proficiency testing/interlaboratory comparisons.
Starting out with 1500 square feet of laboratory space, within the last year Encore Labs has doubled its work area. In order to meet the growing demand of the cannabis testing industry, they have added plans to once again double in size by the end of 2019, as well as open a second laboratory by the end of 2020.
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, is often credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Ten years later, VP Edmund Muskie elevated the environment to a major issue in his 1972 Presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. 57 years after Ms. Carson’s book, we’re still having the same problems. Over 13,000 lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto and last month a jury in Alameda County ruled that a couple came down with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma because of their use of Roundup. The jury awarded them one billion dollars each in punitive damages. Is there a safer alternative?
“Effectively replacing the need for pesticides, we use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which is a proactive program designed to control the population of undesirable pests with the use of natural predators, a system commonly known as “good bugs (such as ladybugs) fighting bad bugs”, states the website of Mucci Farms, a greenhouse grower. While this applies to cannabis as well, there is one major problem with the crop that isn’t faced by other crops.
While states are moving rapidly to legalize it, the EPA is currently not regulating cannabis. That is in the hands of each state. According to a story in the Denver Post in 2016, “Although pesticides are widely used on crops, their use on cannabis remains problematic and controversial as no safety standards exist.” Keep in mind that it takes a lot more pesticides to keep unwarranted guests off your cannabis plant when it’s outdoors than when it’s in a controlled environment.
We’re accustomed to using endless products under the assumption that a range of governmental acronyms such as NIH, FDA, OSHA, EPA, USDA are protecting us. We don’t even think about looking for their labels because we naturally assume that a product we’re about to ingest has been thoroughly tested, approved and vetted by one of those agencies. But what if it’s not?
Again, cannabis regulation is at the state level and here’s why that’s critical. The budget of the EPA is $6.14 billion while Colorado’s EPA-equivalent agency has a budget of $616 million. According to the federal budget summary, “A major component of our FY 2019 budget request is funding for drinking water and clean water infrastructure as well as for Brownfields and Superfund projects.” In short, federal dollars aren’t going towards pesticide testing and they’re certainly got going towards a product that’s illegal at the federal level. That should make you wonder how effective oversight is at the state level.
What impact does this have on our health and what impact do pesticides have on the environment? A former Dean of Science and Medical School at a major university told me, “Many pesticides are neurotoxins that affect your nervous system and liver. These are drugs. The good news is that they kill insects faster than they kill people.” Quite a sobering thought.
“We have the ability to control what kinds of pesticides we put in our water and how much pesticides we put in our water.”Assuming that he’d be totally supportive of greenhouses, I pushed to see if he agreed. “There’s always a downside with nature. An enclosure helps you monitor access. If you’re growing only one variety, your greenhouse is actually more susceptible to pests because it’s only one variety.” The problem for most growers is that absent some kind of a computer vision system in your greenhouse, usually by the time you realize that you have a problem it’s already taken a toll on your crop.
Following up on the concept of monitoring, I reached out to Dr. Jacques White, the executive director of Long Live the Kings, an organization dedicated to restoring wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Obviously, you can’t monitor access to a river, but you certainly can see the effects of fertilizer runoff, chemicals and pesticides into the areas where fish live and eventually, return to spawn.
“Because salmon travel such extraordinary long distances through rivers, streams, estuaries and into oceans they are one of the best health indicators for people. If salmon aren’t doing well, then we should think about whether people should be drinking or using that same water. The salmon population in the area around Puget Sound is not doing well.”
We talked a bit more about pesticides in general and Dr. White summed up the essence of the entire indoor-outdoor farming and pesticides debate succinctly.
“We have the ability to control what kinds of pesticides we put in our water and how much pesticides we put in our water.”
If you extrapolate that thought, the same applies to agriculture. Greenhouse farming, while subject to some problems not endemic to outdoor farming, quite simply puts a lot fewer chemicals in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.
Today in the states where medical and recreational cannabis is legal, cannabis products purchased from licensed facilities are required to have undergone testing by accredited labs. The compliance testing verifies advertised potency levels and checks for microbial contamination, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and the presence of mold and mildew, among other potential contaminants.
Until recently, little attention has been given to disposable gloves and their possible involvement in the contamination of the products they handle. What factors should you consider when purchasing gloves?
Disposable Gloves Facts
Disposable gloves, like cannabis products, are not made of equal quality. There are several different types of disposable gloves on the market, and huge variations in glove quality and chemical compositions exist between and within each glove type.
Recent scientific studies have revealed how gloves produced in factories with poor manufacturing standards and raw material ingredients can contaminate the products they handle. High-level toxins in disposable gloves were found to affect lab results, toxins in gloves contaminated the food they touched, and pathogen contamination of unused disposable gloves has been proven. Should the cannabis industry take more interest in the disposable gloves they are using? With so much at stake if compliance test results are compromised, we think so!
Glove Procurement: Factors to Consider
What factors should you consider when purchasing gloves?
Industrial grade gloves- There is no such thing as an industrial grade glove certification, although it does give an incorrect impression that gloves are strong and resilient. Industrial grade means they have not been subjected to inspection nor have passed any specific testing requirements.
Food contact gloves are certified under FDA Title 21 CFR Part 177, which states the components of the glove comply with the FDA regulations and the gloves consist of “substances generally recognized as safe for use in food or food packaging.” Few controls exist for glove manufacturing relating to the reliability of raw materials and manufacturing processes, and costs can be reduced with the use of cheap, toxic materials.
Medical grade gloves have to pass a series of technical tests in order to meet the safety requirements specified by the FDA. Gloves are tested for puncture and abrasion resistance, must meet tension and elongation tests and are also tested for chemical substance resistance. Manufacturers of these gloves must receive 510k certification. As this study shows, even medical gloves can contain high levels of toxic ingredients, affecting laboratory test results.
The Acceptable Quality Level (AQL) refers to a quality standard for measuring pinhole defects- the lower the AQL, the less defects the gloves have. There are no AQL requirements for food grade or industrial grade gloves, meaning there are no guidelines for the number of failures per box. Medical grade gloves must have an AQL of 2.5 or less, meaning 2.5 failed gloves per 100 gloves is an acceptable level.
For Californian cannabis companies, are your disposable gloves Prop. 65 compliant? Accelerator chemicals, such as 2-Mercaptobenzothiazole (MBT) found in some nitrile gloves, have recently been added to the Prop. 65 chemicals known to cause cancer.
How Gloves Can Contaminate Products
Physical, chemical and microbiological hazards have been identified in disposable glove supply chains. Gloves of any grade are not tested for cleanliness (microbial and bioburden levels), raw material toxicity and chemical composition, or pathogen contamination.
100% of glove factories supplying the United States are based in Southeast Asia. These factories are generally self-regulated, with FDA compliance required for a rough outline of the ingredients of the gloves rather than the final product. Few controls are required for glove manufacturing relating to the reliability of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance or conditions. A clear opportunity exists for accidental or intentional contamination within the glove-making process, especially to reduce costs.
In order to safeguard their customers from product contamination, a selection of tests and certifications, some of which are unique within the glove industry, are being implemented by glove supplier Eagle Protect. These tests make sure Eagle’s gloves coming into the United States are made in clean, well run factories, free of any type of contamination and are consistent in material makeup to original food safe specifications. This glove Fingerprint testing program, consists of a number of proprietary risk reduction steps and targeted third-party testing methods, includes gas chromatography combined with mass spectroscopy (GC/MS); surface free energy determination; in vitro cytotoxicity analysis; and microbial viability-linked metagenomic analysis.
With a great deal of faith placed on a glove supplier’s ability to deliver disposable gloves sight unseen, we believe these tests are essential to further reduce risks or pathogen contamination associated with them, keeping your cannabis products safe.
Good news came to patients using medical cannabis in Arizona earlier this week: Lawmakers in Arizona unanimously passed SB1494 through the state’s House and Senate, the bill requiring mandatory lab testing for medical cannabis products. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is expected to sign the bill and has ten days to do so.
When Governor Ducey signs the bill into law it will mark the first time since the state legalized medical cannabis in 2011 that a measure to protect patient safety via lab testing will be implemented. According to the bill, beginning November 1, 2020, all cannabis products shall be tested prior to sales “to determine unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed,” (Page 6, Section 36-2803).
The bill requires dispensaries to provide test results to patients immediately upon request. Dispensaries need to display a sign notifying patients of their right to see “certified independent third-party laboratory test results for marijuana and marijuana products for medical use,” according to the text of the bill (Page 7, Section 36-2803.01).“There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
Under the new bill, the Arizona Department of Health Services will adopt rules to certify and regulate labs, establishing requirements like health and safety protocols, mandatory quality assurance program and standards, chain of custody and sampling policies, adequate records, accreditation, proficiency testing, among other requirements (Page 6-7, Section 36-2803).
Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA) and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, says this is a major turning point for Arizona’s cannabis industry. “We have been devoid of regulations with regard to testing the entirety of the program since it was legalized; This will be a significant change,” says Treacy. “Now patients can make sure they are getting a safe and clean product and getting exactly what they paid for.”
For those in the know when it comes to cannabis testing in the United States, the new requirements will look very similar to other states with testing requirements. One particularly unique aspect of the new program, however, is the establishment of a “Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council,” made up of stakeholders representing different interests in Arizona’s cannabis industry. Members of the council will include representatives from dispensaries, labs, cultivators, concentrate producers, edibles producers, as well as registered patients, caregivers, a representative from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, a licensed health care provider and “any other members deemed necessary by the director,” reads the text of the bill (page 16, Section 36-2821).
“Other states like California have complained about detection limits, while Arizona is taking a unique approach with an advisory council with stakeholders in the cannabis industry,” says Treacy. “So that when the Department of Health Services promulgates rules, they are taking into account the challenges in the cannabis industry specifically. We have a chance to do this right and avoid pitfalls we’ve seen in other states.”
One problem worth mentioning for Arizona’s cannabis industry: Dispensaries have not been required to test products for patients since medical cannabis was legalized back in 2011. That means many producers could be very used to operating procedures that don’t account for lab testing. With mandatory lab testing, some producers may be behind the curve when it comes to mitigating contamination.
According to Treacy, this could disrupt the supply chain a little bit. “When testing becomes mandatory in November 2020, dispensaries will need a full panel of tests performed on their samples,” says Treacy. “With the entire market now required to complete a full panel in depth analysis on each product, product testing will become a more time-consuming stop in the supply chain. So companies will need to work that into their plan to meet regulation requirements to prevent a bottleneck and maintain patients’ access to their cannabis medicine.”
Arizona has a chance to prevent that type of bottleneck seen in states that implemented testing requirements, like California for example. “When you have a habitual history of not testing products, it can be very hard to change, which adds to Arizona’s challenges,” says Treacy. “We need to make sure this does not affect access for patients and the ability of the industry to continue to flourish and grow.”
While Treacy thinks the transition will be difficult for some, it’s absolutely necessary for Arizona’s patients to access clean and safe medicine. “There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
AOAC INTERNATIONAL is an independent, third party, not-for-profit association and voluntary consensus standards developing organization. Founded in 1884, AOAC INTERNATIONAL was originally coined the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Later on, they changed their name to the Association of Official Analytical Chemists. Now that their members include microbiologists, food scientists as well as chemists, the organization officially changed its name to just AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Much of AOAC’s work surrounds promoting food safety, food security and public health. Their work generally encompasses setting scientific standards for testing methodology, evaluating and adopting test methods and evaluating laboratory proficiency of test methods. The organization provides a forum for scientists to develop microbiological and chemical standards.
In December of 2018, they appointed Dr. Palmer Orlandi as deputy executive director and chief science officer. Dr. Orlandi has an extensive background at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), serving the regulatory agency for more than 20 years. Most recently, he was the CSO and research director in the Office of Food and Veterinary Medicine at the FDA. He earned the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in 2017.
Where It All Began With Cannabis
As recently as three years ago, AOAC began getting involved in the cannabis laboratory testing community, with a working group dedicated to developing standard method performance requirements for AOAC Official MethodsSM for cannabis testing. We sat down with Dr. Palmer Orlandi and a number of AOAC’s leaders to get an update on their progress working with cannabis testing as well as food security and food fraud.
According to Scott Coates, senior director of the AOAC Research Institute, they were approached three years ago to set up a working group for cannabis testing. “We created standards that we call the standard method performance requirements (SMPR®), which are detailed descriptions of what analytical methods should be able to do,” says Coates. “Using SMPRs, we issued a series of calls for methods and looked for methods that meet our standards. So far, we’ve completed four SMPRs- cannabinoids in plant material, cannabinoids in plant extracts, cannabinoids in chocolate (edibles), and one for pesticides in cannabis plant material.” AOAC doesn’t develop methods themselves, but they perform a comprehensive review of the methods and if they deem them acceptable, then the methods can be adopted and published in the AOAC compendium of methods, the Official Methods of Analysis of AOAC INTERNATIONAL.
Deborah McKenzie, senior director of Standards and Official MethodsSM at AOAC, says the initial working group set the stage for really sinking their teeth into cannabis testing. “It started with methods for testing cannabinoids in plant dried material and plant extract,” says McKenzie. “That’s where our previous work has started to mold into the current effort we are launching.” McKenzie says they are looking forward to getting more involved with methods regarding chemical contaminants in cannabis, cannabinoids in various foods and consumables, as well as microbial organisms in cannabis. “We are pretty focused on testing labs having reliable and validated analytical solutions as our broad goal right now.”
Moving Forward, Expanding Their Programs
Coates says the work they’ve done over the past few years was more of a singular project, developed strictly for creating standards and to review methods. Now they are currently developing their Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), which is expected to be an ongoing program. “We are looking to fully support the cannabis analytical community as best we can, which will potentially include working on reference materials, proficiency testing, education, training and ISO 17025 accreditation, all particularly as it applies to lab testing in the cannabis industry,” says Coates. “So, this CASP work is a much bigger and broader effort to cover more and to provide more support for labs doing the analysis of cannabis and its constituents, as well as hemp.”
According to Dr. Orlandi, they want this program to have a broad reach in the cannabis testing community. “As Scott pointed out, it’s not just strictly developing standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “It is going to be as all-encompassing as possible and will lead to training programs, a proficiency testing program and other areas.” Arlene Fox, senior director of AOAC’s Laboratory Proficiency Testing Program, says they are actively engaging in proficiency testing. “We are in the process of evaluating what is out there, what is possible and what’s needed as far as expanding proficiency testing for cannabis labs,” says Fox.
Regulatory Challenges & Obstacles
The obvious roadblock to much of AOAC’s work is that cannabis is still considered a controlled substance. “That creates some challenges for the work that we do in certain areas,” says Dr. Orlandi. “That is why this isn’t just a one-year project. We will work with these challenges and our stakeholders to address them.” AOAC had to put some limits on participation- for example, they had to decide that they cannot look for contributions or collaborations with producers and distributors, so long as cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance in the US.
Muddying the waters even further, the recent signing of the Farm Bill puts a clear distinction between most types of cannabis and industrial hemp. David Schmidt, executive director of AOAC realizes they need to be realistic with their stakeholders and in the eye of federal law.
While scientifically speaking, it’s pretty much the same plant just with slightly different chemical constituents, AOAC INTERNATIONAL has to draw a line in the sand somewhere. “As Palmer suggests, because of the Farm Bill being implemented and hemp being defined now as a legal substance from a controlled substance standpoint, industrial hemp has been given this exclusion,” says Schmidt. “So, we are trying to be realistic now, working with our stakeholders that work with hemp, trying to understand the reality of the federal law. We want to make clear that we can meet stakeholder needs and we want to distinguish hemp from cannabis to remain confident in the legality of it.” Schmidt says this is one of a number of topics they plan on addressing in detail at their upcoming 9thannual 2019 Midyear Meeting, held March 11-14 in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Uniformity in Methodology: The Future of Cannabis Testing
Dr. Orlandi says his experience at the FDA has prepared him well for the work being done at AOAC. “The role that I served at the FDA prior to joining my colleagues here at AOAC was very similar: And that is to bring together stakeholders to accomplish or to solve a common problem.” Some of their stakeholders in the CASP program include BC Testing, Inc., the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO), Bia Diagnostics, Bio-Rad, Industrial Laboratories, Materia Medica Labs, PerkinElmer, R-Biopharm AG, Supra R & D, TEQ Analytical Laboratories, Titan Analytical and Trilogy Analytical, among others.
“The underlying reason behind this effort is to create some level of harmonization for standards and methods,” says Dr. Orlandi. “They can be used in the near future to stay ahead of the curve for when regulatory agencies become involved. The idea is that these standards for analytical methods will already be established and as uniform as possible.”
When comparing cannabis to other industries in the US, Scott Coates mentions that most standards are signed off by the federal government. “When we started looking at pesticides in cannabis, it became really clear that we have a number of states doing things differently with different limits of quantification,” says Coates. “Each state, generally speaking, is setting their own standards. As Palmer was saying, one thing we are trying to do with this CASP program eventually will be to have some harmonization, instead of 30 different states having 30 different standards and methods.” So, on a much broader level, their goal for the CASP program is to develop a common set of standard methods, including hemp testing and even the Canadian market. “Hopefully this will be an international collaboration for standards for the methodology,” says Coates. They want to create a common set of standards, setting limits of quantification that will be accepted internationally, that will be accurate and repeatable and for the entire cannabis industry, not just state by state.
Food Authenticity & Fraud
One of the other activities that AOAC just launched recently is the food authenticity and fraud program. As the name implies, the goal is to start developing standards and methods and materials to look at economically adulterated foods, says Dr. Orlandi. That includes non-targeted analyses looking at matrices of food products that may be adulterated with an unknown target, as well as targeted analytes, identifying common adulterants in a variety of food products. “One example in the food industry is fraudulent olive oil,” says Dr. Orlandi. “Honey is another commodity that has experienced adulteration.” He says that in most cases these are economically motivated instances of fraud.
According to a press release published today, Emerald Scientific awarded PerkinElmer five badges for The Emerald Test, a bi-annual Inter-Laboratory Comparison and Proficiency Test (ILC/PT) program. Awarding the badges for Perkin Elmer’s instruments and testing methods affirms their ability to accurately detect pesticides, heavy metals, residual solvents, terpenes and potency in cannabis.
According to Greg Sears, vice president and general manager of Food, Chromatography & Mass Spectrometry, Discovery & Analytical Solutions at PerkinElmer, they are the only instrument manufacturer to receive all five accolades. “To date, PerkinElmer is the only solutions provider to successfully complete these five Emerald Scientific proficiency tests,” says Sears. “The badges underscore our instruments’ ability to help cannabis labs meet the highest standards available in the industry and effectively address their biggest pain point: Navigating diverse regulations without compromising turnaround time.”
The instruments used were PerkinElmer’s QSight 220 and 420 Triple Quad systems, which are originally designed for accurate and fast detection/identification of “pesticides, mycotoxins and emerging contaminants in complex food, cannabis and environmental samples,” reads the press release. They also used their ICP-MS, GC/MS and HPLC systems for the badges.
PerkinElmer says they developed a single LC/MS/MS method using their QSight Triple Quad systems, which helps labs test for pesticides and mycotoxins under strict regulations in states like California and Oregon. They performed studies that also confirm their instruments can help meet Canada’s testing requirements, which set action limits nearly 10 times lower than California, according to the press release.
Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus, Technical Services Analyst, Dr. Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, Andy Sechler, Lab Director, Toby Astill, Senior Business Development Leader at Perkin Elmer and Charles Deibel, President of Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Pesticides represent the leading cause of batch failures in the cannabis industry. They are also the hardest tests to run in the laboratory, even one equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. The best instruments on the market are HPLC and GC dual mass spectrometer detectors, called “HPLC-qqq”, “GC-qqq,” or just triple quads.
As non-lab people, we envision a laboratory that can take a cannabis sample, inject it into a triple quad and have the machine quickly and effortlessly print out a report of pesticide values. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The process is much more hands on and complex.In the current chemistry lab, trained analysts have to first program the triple quads to look for the pesticides of concern; in cannabis pesticide testing, this is done by programming the first of two mass spectrometers to identify a single (precursor) mass that is characteristic of the pesticide in question. For BCC requirements in California, this has to be done for all 66 pesticides, one at a time.
Next, these precursor ions are degraded into secondary chemicals called the “product” ions, also called transition ions. The second of the two mass spectrometers is used to analyze these transition ions. This process is graphed and the resulting spectrum is analyzed by trained chemists in the lab, pesticide by pesticide, for all the samples processed that day. If the lab analyzes 10 samples, that translates to 660 spectra to analyze (66 pesticides x 10 samples). When looking at the spectra for each pesticide, the analysts must compare the ratios of the precursor ions to the product ions.
If these spectra indicate a given pesticide may be present, the chemists must then compare the ratios between the precursor and the products. If these ratios are not what is expected, then the analyst must perform confirmation testing to prove the precursor mass either is or is not the pesticide of concern. If the ratios are not what is expected, it means the molecule is similar to the pesticide in question, but may not be that pesticide. This confirmatory testing is key to producing accurate results and not failing batches when dealing with closely related chemicals. This process of analyzing spectra is done in all labs that are performing pesticide testing. In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods.
The need for this type of confirmation testing doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does, it will take longer than our targeted three-day turn-around time. In the picture above, one precursor mass is ionized into several product masses; but only two are large enough to be used for comparison. In this hypothetical situation, two product masses are produced for every one precursor, the expected ion abundance ratio should be less than 30%. When performing any confirmatory testing, if the ion abundance ratio is >30%, it means the original precursor molecule was not the pesticide of concern. For example, if the ion abundance ratio was 50%, then the original molecule broke down into too many parts; it was not the pesticide we were looking for. This ion abundance ratio threshold was established by FANCO, the international organization that sets guidelines for all pesticide testing.
Methodology: In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. The identification of the precursor mass and product ions are not always published, leaving labs to research which ions should be used. This adds to the potential for differences between lab results. Once selected, labs should validate their research, through a series of experiments to ensure the correct precursor and transition (product) ions are being used in the method.
Sample Preparation: Beyond the time-consuming work that is required to develop sound pesticide methods, the extraction step is absolutely critical for credible results. If the pesticides aren’t fully extracted from the cannabis product, then the results will be lower than expected. Sample preparations are often not standardized between labs, so unless a given extraction technique is validated for accuracy, there is the possibility for differences between labs.
Getting a Representative Sample
The current California recommended amount of sample is one gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary greatly and it is entirely likely that two different one gram samples can have two different results for pesticides. Has the entire plant been evenly coated with exactly the same amount of pesticide onto every square inch of its leaves? No, probably not. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample, by taking several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch.
Sampling Plans: We can learn a lot from the manufacturing and sampling best practices developed by the food industry through the years. If a food manufacturer is concerned with the possibility of having a bacteria pathogen, like Salmonella, in their finished product, they test the samples coming off their production lines at a statistically relevant level. This practice (theory) is called the sampling plan and it can easily be adapted to the cannabis industry. The basic premise is that the more you test, the higher your likelihood of catching a contaminate. Envision a rectangular swimming pool, but instead of water, it’s filled with jello. In this gelatinous small pool, 100 pennies are suspended at varying levels. The pennies represent the contaminates.
Is the pool homogenized? Is jello evenly represented in the entire pool? Yes.
Is your concentrate evenly distributed in the extraction vessel? Yes. The question is, where are the pennies in that extraction vessel? The heavy metals, the microbial impurities and the pesticides should be evenly distributed in the extraction vessel but they may not be evenly represented in each sample that is collected. Unfortunately, this is the bane of the manufacturing industry and it’s the unfortunate reality in the food industry. If you take one random cup of jello, will you find the penny? Probably not. But it you take numerous 1 cup samples from random areas within the batch, you increase your chances of finding the contaminate. This is the best approach for sampling any cannabis product.
The best way to approve a batch of cannabis product is to take several random samples and composite them. But you may need to run several samples from this composite to truly understand what is in the batch. In the swimming pool example, if you take one teaspoon scoop, will you find one of the pennies? The best way to find one of the pennies is to take numerous random samples, composite them and increase the number of tests you perform at the lab. This should be done on any new vendor/cultivator you work with, in order to help establish the safety of the product.
Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus Technical Services Analyst, Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, and Charles Deibel, President Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Heavy metals are common environmental contaminants resulting from human industrial activities such as mining operations, industrial waste, automotive emissions, coal fired power plants and farm/house hold water run-off. They affect the water and soil, and become concentrated in plants, animals, pesticides and the sediments used to make fertilizers. They can also be present in low quality glass or plastic packaging materials that can leach into the final cannabis product upon contact. The inputs used by cultivators that can be contaminated with heavy metals include fertilizers, growing media, air, water and even the clone/plant itself.
The four heavy metals tested in the cannabis industry are lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) mandates heavy metals testing for all three categories of cannabis products (inhalable cannabis, inhalable cannabis products and other cannabis and cannabis products) starting December 31, 2018. On an ongoing basis, we recommend cultivators test for the regulated heavy metals in R&D samples any time there are changes in a growing process including changes to growing media, cannabis strains, a water system or source, packaging materials and fertilizers or pesticides. Cultivators should test the soil, nutrient medium, water and any new clones or plants for heavy metals. Pre-qualifying a new packaging material supplier or a water source prior to use is a proactive approach that could bypass issues with finished product.
The best approach to heavy metal detection is the use of an instrument called an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS). There are many other instruments that can test for heavy metals, but in order to achieve the very low detection limits imposed by most states including California, the detector must be the ICP-MS. Prior to detection using ICP-MS, cannabis and cannabis related products go through a sample preparation stage consisting of some form of digestion to completely break down the complex matrix and extract the heavy metals for analysis. This two-step process is relatively fast and can be done in a single day, however, the instruments used to perform the digestion are usually the limiting step as the digesters run in a batch of 8-16 samples over a 2-hour period.
Only trace amounts of heavy metals are allowed by California’s BCC in cannabis and cannabis products. A highly sensitive detection system finds these trace amounts and also allows troubleshooting when a product is found to be out of specification.
For example, during the course of testing, we have seen lead levels exceed the BCC’s allowable limit of 0.5 ppm in resin from plastic vape cartridges. An investigation determined that the plastic used to make the vape cartridge was the source of the excessive lead levels. Even if a concentrate passes the limits at the time of sampling, the concern is that over time, the lead leached from the plastic into the resin, increasing the concentration of heavy metals to unsafe levels.
Getting a Representative Sample
The ability to detect trace levels of heavy metals is based on the sample size and how well the sample represents the entire batch. The current California recommended amount of sample is 1 gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary but cannot be larger than 50 pounds of flower. There is no upper limit to the batch sizes for other inhalable cannabis products (Category II).
It is entirely likely that two different 1 gram samples of flower can have two different results for heavy metals because of how small a sample is collected compared to an entire batch. In addition, has the entire plant evenly collected and concentrated the heavy metals into every square inch of it’s leaves? No, probably not. In fact, preliminary research in leafy greens shows that heavy metals are not evenly distributed in a plant. Results from soil testing can also be inconsistent due to clumping or granularity. Heavy metals are not equally distributed within a lot of soil and the one small sample that is taken may not represent the entire batch. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample by collecting several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch, combining them, and taking a 1 g sample from this composite for analysis.
Linger, P. J. Mussig, H. Fischer, J. Kobert. 2002. Industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) growing on heavy metal contaminated soil: fibre quality and phytoremediation potential. Ind. Crops Prod. 11, 73–84.
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