In the last four articles, I have outlined areas that impact your operations as they apply to laboratory quality programs. But this article will take a different path. It will focus on protecting your crop and brand along with any business that utilizes your crop, such as dispensaries or edible manufactures in the court of public opinion.
Now, the elephant in the room for cannabis companies is the difference between rules written by the state and their enforcement by the state. There are many anecdotal stories out there that can be used as case studies in identifying ways to protect your brand. Remember, consumers and the media caught them, not the regulators.
Cheating in the cannabis industry: growers, dispensaries, edibles manufactures, etc. This includes:
Finding laboratories that will produce results that the client wants (higher potency numbers)
Not testing for a particular contaminant that may be present in the cannabis product.
Selling failed crops on the gray or black market.
Claiming to regulators that the state rules are unclear and cannot be followed (e.g. So, give me another chance, officer)
So why should you be worried? Because, even if the state where you operate fails to enforce its own rules, the final end-user of your product will hold you accountable! If you produce any cannabis product and fail to consider these end-users, you will be found out in the court of public opinion by either the media or by the even more effective word of mouth (e.g. Social Media).
So, let’s take a look at some recent examples of these problems:
Each of these reports lists contamination by microbial stains or pesticides as being rampant within the California market whose products are used for medical or recreational use. Just imagine the monetary losses these cannabis businesses faced for their recalled cannabis product when they got caught. Remember, consumers and the media caught them, not the regulators.Institute a quality program in your business immediately.
How can you be caught? There are many different ways:
So, what should you do to produce an acceptable product and provide reasonable protection to your cannabis business? Institute a quality program in your business immediately. This quality program will include areas of quality assurance and quality control for at least these areas.
Processing or formulating
Training of staff
Setting up and supporting these programs requires that your upper management impose both a rigorous training program and make employee compliance mandatory. Otherwise, your business will have an unreasonable risk of failure in the future.
Further information on preparing and instituting these types of quality assurance and quality control programs within your business can be found at the author’s website.
Can the laboratory accurately analyze sample products like my sample?
Can the laboratory reproduce the sample results for my type of sample?
Now let’s discuss the most important QC test that will protect your crop and business. That QC sample is the Matrix Sample. In the last article in this series, you were introduced to many QC samples. The Matrix Sample and Duplicate were some of them. Take a look back at Part 3 to familiarize yourself with the definitions.
The key factors of these QC sample types are:
Your sample is used to determine if the analysis used by the laboratory can extract the analyte that is being reported back to you. This is performed by the following steps:
Your sample is analyzed by the laboratory as received.
Then a sub-sample of your sample is spiked with a known concentration of the analyte you are looking for (e.g. pesticides, bacteria, organic chemicals, etc.).
The difference between the sample with and without a spike indicates whether the laboratory can even find the analyte of concern and whether the percent recovery is acceptable.
Examples of failures are from my experiences:
Laboratory 1 spiked a known amount of a pesticide into a wastewater matrix. (e.g. Silver into final treatment process water). The laboratory failed to recover any of the spiked silver. Therefore the laboratory results for these types of sample were not reporting any silver, but silver may be present. This is where laboratory results would be false negatives and the laboratory method may not work on the matrix (your sample) correctly. .
Laboratory 2 ran an analysis for a toxic compound (e.g. Cyanide in final waste treatment discharge). A known amount of cyanide was spiked into a matrix sample and 4 times the actual concentration of that cyanide spike was recovered. This is where laboratory results would be called false positives and the laboratory method may not work on the matrix (your sample) correctly.
Can the laboratory reproduce the results they reported to you?
The laboratory needs to repeat the matrix spike analysis to provide duplicate results. Then a comparison of the results from the first matrix spike with its duplicate results will show if the laboratory can duplicate their test on your sample.
If the original matrix spike result and the duplicate show good agreement (e.g. 20% relative percent difference or lower). Then you can be relatively sure that the result you obtained from the laboratory is true.
But, if the original matrix spike result and the duplicate do not show good agreement (e.g. greater than 20% relative percent difference). Then you can be sure that the result you obtained from the laboratory is not true and you should question the laboratory’s competence.
Now, the question is why a laboratory would not perform these matrix spike and duplicate QC samples? Well, the following may apply:
These matrix samples take too much time.
These matrix samples add a cost that the laboratory cannot recover.
These matrix samples are too difficult for the laboratory staff to perform.
Most importantly: Matrix samples show the laboratory cannot perform the analyses correctly on the matrix.
So, what types of cannabis matrices are out there? Some examples include bud, leaf, oils, extracts and edibles. Those are some of the matrices and each one has their own testing requirements. So, what should you require from your laboratory?
The laboratory must use your sample for both a matrix spike and a duplicate QC sample.
The percent recovery of both the matrix spike and the duplicate will be between 80% and 120%. If either of the QC samples fail, then you should be notified immediately and the samples reanalyzed.
If the relative percent difference between the matrix spike and the duplicate will be 20% or less. If the QC samples fail, then you should be notified immediately and the samples should be reanalyzed.
The impact of questionable laboratory results on your business with failing or absent matrix spike and the duplicate QC samples can be prevented. It is paramount that you hold the laboratory responsible to produce results that are representative of your sample matrix and that are true.
The next article will focus on how your business will develop a quality plan for your laboratory service provider with a specific focus on the California Code Of Regulations, Title 16, Division 42. Bureau Of Cannabis Control requirements.
With the cannabis industry growing rapidly, laboratories are adapting to the new market demand for medical cannabis testing in accordance to ISO/IEC 17025. Third-party accreditation bodies, such as Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation, Inc. (PJLA), conduct these assessments to determine that laboratories are following relevant medical cannabis testing standard protocols in order to detect potency and contaminant levels in cannabis. Additionally, laboratories are required to implement and maintain a quality management system throughout their facility. Obtaining accreditation is a challenge for laboratories initially going through the process. There are many requirements outlined in the standard that laboratories must adhere to in order to obtain a final certificate of accreditation. Laboratories should evaluate the ISO 17025 standard thoroughly, receive adequate training, implement the standard within their facility and conduct an internal audit in order to prepare for a third-party assessment. Being prepared will ultimately reduce the number of findings detected during the on-site assessment. Listed below is research and evidence gathered by PJLA to determine the top ten findings by clause specifically in relation to cannabis testing laboratories.
4.2: Management System
Defined roles and responsibilities of management system and its quality policies, including a structured outline of supporting procedures, requirements of the policy statement and establishment of objectives.
Providing evidence of establishing the development, implementation and maintenance of the management system appropriate to the scope of activities and the continuous improvement of its effectiveness.
Ensuring the integrity of the management system during planned and implemented changes.
Communication from management of the importance of meeting customer, statutory and regulatory requirements
4.3: Document Control
Establishing and maintaining procedures to control all documents that form the management system.
The review of document approvals, issuance and changes.
4.6: Purchasing Services and Supplies
Policies and procedures for the selection and purchasing of services and supplies, inspection and verification of services and supplies
Review and approval of purchasing documents containing data describing the services and supplies ordered
Maintaining records for the evaluation of suppliers of critical consumables, supplies and services, which affect the quality of laboratory outputs.
4.13: Control of Records
Establishing and maintaining procedures for identification, collection, indexing, access, filing, storage and disposal of quality and technical records.
Providing procedures to protect and back-up records stored electronically and to prevent unauthorized access.
4.14: Internal Audits
Having a predetermined schedule and procedure for conducting internal audits of its activities and that addresses all elements that verify its compliance of its established management system and ISO/IEC 17025
Completing and recording corrective actions arising from internal audits in a timely manner, follow-up activities of implementation and verification of effectiveness of corrective actions taken.
Laboratory management not ensuring the competence and qualifications of all personnel who operate specific equipment, perform tests, evaluate test results and sign test reports. Lack of personnel undergoing training and providing appropriate supervision
Providing a training program policies and procedures for an effective training program that is appropriate; identification and review of training needs and the program’s effectiveness to demonstrate competence.
Lack of maintaining records of training actions taken, current job descriptions for managerial, technical and key support personnel involved in testing
5.4: Test and Calibration Methods and Method Validation
Utilization of appropriate laboratory methods and procedures for all testing within the labs scope; including sampling, handling, transport, storage and preparation of items being tested, and where appropriate, a procedure for an estimation of the measurement of uncertainty and statistical techniques for analysis
Up-to-date instructions on the use and operation of all relevant equipment, and on the handling and preparation of items for testing
Introduction laboratory-developed and non-standard methods and developing procedures prior to implementation.
Validating non-standard methods in accordance with the standard
Not completing appropriate checks in a systematic manner for calculations and data transfers
5.6: Measurement Traceability
Ensuring that equipment used has the associated measurement uncertainty needed for traceability of measurements to SI units or certified reference materials and completing intermediate checks needed according to a defined procedure and schedules.
Not having procedures for safe handling, transport, storage and use of reference standards and materials that prevent contamination or deterioration of its integrity.
5.10: Reporting the Results
Test reports not meeting the standard requirements, statements of compliance with accounting for uncertainty, not providing evidence for measurement traceability, inaccurately amending reports.
SOP-3: Use of the Logo
Inappropriate use of PJLA’s logo on the laboratories test reports and/or website.
Using the incorrect logo for the testing laboratory or using the logo without prior approval from PJLA.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s opinions based on his experience working in the laboratory industry. This is an opinion piece in a series of articles designed to highlight the potential problems that clients may run into with labs.
In the previous article, I discussed the laboratory’s first line of defense (e.g. certification or accreditation) when a grower, processor or dispensary (user) questions a laboratory result. Now let us look behind this paperwork wall to the laboratory culture the user will encounter once their complaint is filtered past the first line of defense.
It is up to the client (processor, grower or dispensary) to determine the quality of the lab they use.In an ISO 17025 (2005 or 2017) and TNI accreditation, the laboratory must be organized into management, quality and technical areas. Each area can overlap as in the ISO 17025-2017 standard or be required to remain as separate sections in the laboratory as in the ISO 17025-2005 or TNI 2009 standards. ISO 17025 standards (e.g. 2005 and 2017) specifically require a separation of monetary benefits for laboratory results as it applies to the technical staff. This “conflict of interest” (CoI) is not always clearly defined in the laboratory’s day-to-day practices.
One example that I have experienced with this CoI separation violation goes back to my days as a laboratory troubleshooter in the 1990s. I was called into a laboratory that was failing to meet their Department of Defense (DoD) contract for volatile organic hydrocarbon analyses (VOAs) of soil samples by purge trap-gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy. I was required to “fix” the problem. What I determined was:
The analytical chemists performing the VOAs analyses were high school graduates with no coursework in chemistry or biology.
There was no training program in place for these analysts in instrument use, instrument troubleshooting and interpretation of the analytical results.
The only training the analysts received was for simple instrument set-up and basic instrument computer software use. (e.g. Push this button and send results to clerks)
Clerks with a high school degree and no analytical chemistry training in the business office generated the final reports and certified them as accurate and complete.
None of the staff was technically competent to perform any in-depth VOAs analytical work nor was the clerical staff competent to certify the results reported.
When I pointed out these discrepancies to the laboratory management, they declined to make any changes. The laboratory management had a direct monetary interest in completing all analyses at the lowest costs within the time limit set by DoD. If the laboratory did not complete the analyses as per the DoD contract, DoD would cancel the contract and not pay the laboratory.
The DoD, in a “Double Blind” test sample, later caught this laboratory.. A Double Blind test sample is used to check to see if the laboratory is performing the tests correctly. The laboratory does not know it is a test sample. So if the laboratory is cheating, they will be caught.This does not mean that all laboratories have staff or management issues
Once the laboratory was caught by DoD with the Double Blind, laboratory management claimed they were unaware of this behavior and management fired all analytical staff performing VOAs and clerical staff reporting the VOAs results to show DoD that it was a rogue group of individuals and not the laboratory management. The fired staff members were denied unemployment benefits as they were fired with cause. So, the moral to this story is if the analytical staff and specifically the clerical staff had wanted to hold the laboratory management accountable for this conflict of interest, they may have been fired, but without cause. The staff would have kept their reputation for honesty and collected unemployment benefits.
I have witnessed the “CoI above repeatedly over the last 30+ years both in laboratories where I have been employed and as a consultant. The key laboratory culture problems that lead to these CoI issues can be distilled into the following categories:
Financial CoI: In the financial CoI, the laboratory management must turn out so many analytical test results per day to remain financially solvent. The philosophical change that comes over management is that the laboratory is not producing scientific results, but is instead just churning out tests. Therefore, the more tests the laboratory produces, the more money it makes. Any improvement in test output is to be looked upon favorably and anything that diminishes test output is bad. So, to put this in simple terms: “The laboratory will perform the analyses quickly and get the report sent to the user so the laboratory can be paid. Anything that slows this production down will not be tolerated!” To maximize the Return on Investment (RoI) for the laboratory, management will employ staff that outwardly mirrors this philosophy.
I Need This Job CoI: This is the CoI area that poor quality lab technical staff and clerical staff most readily falls into. As outlined in the example above, both the analytical staff and clerical staff lacked the educational credentials, the technical training to be proficient in the use of the analytical instruments, ability to identify problems performing the analytical methods or complications in reporting analytical results. That means they were locked into the positions they held in this specific laboratory. This lack of marketable skills placed pressure on these staff members to comply with all directives from management. What happened to them in the end was regrettable, but predictable. Management can prey on this type of staff limitation.
Lack of Interest or Care CoI: This form of CoI is the malaise that infects poor quality laboratories, but can reach a level in management, quality and technical areas as to produce a culture where everyone goes through the moves, but does not care about anything but receiving their paycheck. In my many years of laboratory troubleshooting this type of CoI is the most difficult to correct. Laboratories where I had to correct this problem required that I had to impress on the staff that their work mattered and that they were valued employees. I had to institute a rigorous training program, require staff quality milestones and enforce the quality of work results. During my years of laboratory troubleshooting, I only had to terminate three laboratory staff for poor work performance. Unfortunately after I left many of these laboratories, management drifted back to the problems listed above and the laboratory malaise returned. This proves that even though a laboratory staff can achieve quality performance, it can quickly dissolve with lax management.
So, what are the conclusions of this article?
Laboratory culture can place profit over scientific correctness, accuracy and precision.
Laboratory management sets the quality of staff that determines the analytical results and report quality the user receives.
Laboratory quality can vary from acceptable performance to unacceptable performance over the lifetime of the laboratory depending on management.
This does not mean that all laboratories have staff or management issues. It is up to the client (processor, grower or dispensary) to determine the quality of the lab they use.
The next article in this series will introduce the user to the specific Quality Control (QC) analyses that an acceptable laboratory should perform for the user’s sample. These QC analyses are not always performed by accredited laboratories as the specific state that regulates their cannabis program does not require them. The use of these QC samples is another example of how laboratory’s with poor quality systems construct another paper work wall.
With the state led legalization of both adult recreational and medical cannabis, there is a need for comprehensive and reliable analytical testing to ensure consumer safety and drug potency. Cannabis-testing laboratories receive high volumes of test requests from cannabis cultivators for testing quantitative and qualitative aspects of the plant. The testing market is growing as more states bring in stricter enforcement policies on testing. As the number of testing labs grow, it is anticipated that the laboratories that are now servicing other markets, including high throughput contract labs, will cross into cannabis testing as regulations free up. As the volume of tests each lab performs increases, the need for laboratories to make effective use of time and resource management, such as ensuring accurate and quick results, reports, regulatory compliance, quality assurance and many other aspects of data management becomes vital in staying competitive.
Cannabis Testing Workflows
To be commercially competitive, testing labs offer a comprehensive range of testing services. These services are available for both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, including:
Detection and quantification of both acid and neutral forms of cannabinoids
Screening for pesticide levels
Monitoring water activity to indicate the possibility of microbiological contamination
Moisture content measurements
Residual solvents and heavy metal testing
Fungi, molds, mycotoxin testing and many more
Although the testing workflows differ for each test, here is a basic overview of the operations carried out in a cannabis-testing lab:
Cannabis samples are received.
The samples are processed using techniques such as grinding and homogenization. This may be followed by extraction, filtration and evaporation.
A few samples will be isolated and concentrated by dissolving in solvents, while others may be derivatized using HPLC or GC reagents
The processed samples are then subjected to chromatographic separation using techniques such as HPLC, UHPLC, GC and GC-MS.
The separated components are then analyzed and identified for qualitative and quantitative analysis based on specialized standards and certified reference materials.
The quantified analytical data will be exported from the instruments and compiled with the corresponding sample data.
The test results are organized and reviewed by the lab personnel.
The finalized test results are reported in a compliant format and released to the client.
In order to ensure that cannabis testing laboratories function reliably, they are obliged to follow and execute certain organizational and regulatory protocols throughout the testing process. These involve critical factors that determine the accuracy of testing services of a laboratory.
Factors Critical to a Cannabis Testing Laboratory
Accreditations & Regulatory Compliance: Cannabis testing laboratories are subject to regulatory compliance requirements, accreditation standards, laboratory practices and policies at the state level. A standard that most cannabis testing labs comply to is ISO 17025, which sets the requirements of quality standards in testing laboratories. Accreditation to this standard represents the determination of competence by an independent third party referred to as the “Accreditation Body”. Accreditation ensures that laboratories are adhering to their methods. These testing facilities have mandatory participation in proficiency tests regularly in order to maintain accreditation.
Quality Assurance, Standards & Proficiency Testing: Quality assurance is in part achieved by implementing standard test methods that have been thoroughly validated. When standard methods are not available, the laboratory must validate their own methods. In addition to using valid and appropriate methods, accredited laboratories are also required to participate in appropriate and commercially available Proficiency Test Program or Inter-Laboratory Comparison Study. Both PT and ILC Programs provide laboratories with some measure of their analytic performance and compare that performance with other participating laboratories.
Real-time Collaboration: Testing facilities generate metadata such as data derived from cannabis samples and infused products. The testing status and test results are best served for compliance and accessibility when integrated and stored on a centralized platform. This helps in timely data sharing and facilitates informed decision making, effective cooperation and relationships between cannabis testing facilities and growers. This platform is imperative for laboratories that have grown to high volume throughput where opportunities for errors exist. By matching test results to samples, this platform ensures consistent sample tracking and traceability. Finally, the platform is designed to provide immediate, real-time reporting to individual state or other regulatory bodies.
Personnel Management: Skilled scientific staff in cannabis-testing laboratories are required to oversee testing activities. Staff should have experience in analytical chromatography instruments such as HPLC and GC-MS. Since samples are often used for multi-analytes such as terpenes, cannabinoids, pesticides etc., the process often involves transferring samples and tests from one person to another within the testing facility. A chain of custody (CoC) is required to ensure traceability and ‘ownership’ for each person involved in the workflow.
LIMS for Laboratory Automation
Gathering, organizing and controlling laboratory-testing data can be time-consuming, labor-intensive and challenging for cannabis testing laboratories. Using spreadsheets and paper methods for this purpose is error-prone, makes data retrieval difficult and does not allow laboratories to easily adhere to regulatory guidelines. Manual systems are cumbersome, costly and lack efficiency. One way to meet this challenge is to switch to automated solutions that eliminate many of the mundane tasks that utilize valuable human resources.. Laboratory automation transforms the data management processes and as a result, improves the quality of services and provides faster turnaround time with significant cost savings. Automating the data management protocol will improve the quality of accountability, improve technical efficiency, and improve fiscal resources.
A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a software tool for testing labs that aids efficient data management. A LIMS organizes, manages and communicates all laboratory test data and related information, such as sample and associated metadata, tests, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), test reports, and invoices. It also enables fully automated data exchange between instruments such as HPLCs, GC-FIDs, etc. to one consolidated location, thereby reducing transcription errors.
How LIMS Helps Cannabis Testing Labs
LIMS are much more capable than spreadsheets and paper-based tools for streamlining the analytical and operational lab activities and enhances the productivity and quality by eliminating manual data entry. Cloud-enabled LIMS systems such as CloudLIMS are often low in the total cost of acquisition, do not require IT staff and are scalable to help meet the ever changing business and regulatory compliance needs. Some of the key benefits of LIMS for automating a cannabis-testing laboratory are illustrated below [Table 1]:
Barcode label designing and printing
Enables proper labelling of samples and inventory
Follows GLP guidelines
Instant data capture by scanning barcodes
Facilitates quick client registration and sample access
3600 data traceability
Saves time and resources for locating samples and other records
Inventory and order management
Supports proactive planning/budgeting and real time accuracy
Promotes overall laboratory organization by assigning custodians for samples and tests
Maintains the Chain-of-custody (CoC)
Accommodates pre-loaded test protocols to quickly assign tests for incoming samples
Accounting for sample and inventory quantity
Automatically deducts sample and inventory quantities when consumed in tests
Package & shipment management
Manages incoming samples and samples that have been subcontracted to other laboratories
Electronic data import
Electronically imports test results and metadata from integrated instruments
Eliminates manual typographical errors
Generates accurate, customizable, meaningful and test reports for clients
Allows user to include signatures and additional sections for professional use
21 CFR Part 11 compliant
Authenticates laboratory activities with electronic signatures
ISO 17025 accreditation
Provides traceable documentary evidence required to achieve ISO 17025 accreditation
Audit trail capabilities
Adheres to regulatory standards by recording comprehensive audit logs for laboratory activities along with the date and time stamp
Centralized data management
Stores all the data in a single, secure database facilitating quick data retrieval
Promotes better data management and resource allocation
Enables modification of screens using graphical configuration tools to mirror testing workflows
State compliance systems
Integrates with state-required compliance reporting systems and communicates using API
Adheres to regulatory compliance
Creates Certificates of Analysis (CoA) to prove regulatory compliance for each batch as well as batch-by-batch variance analysis and other reports as needed.
Data security & confidentiality
Masks sensitive data from unauthorized user access
Cloud-based LIMS encrypts data at rest and in-transit while transmission between the client and the server
Cloud-based LIMS provides real-time access to laboratory data from anytime anywhere
Cloud-based LIMS enhances real-time communication within a laboratory, between a laboratory and its clients, and across a global organization with multiple sites
Table 1. Key functionality and benefits of LIMS for cannabis testing laboratories
Upon mapping the present day challenges faced by cannabis testing laboratories, adopting laboratory automation solutions becomes imperative. Cloud-based LIMS becomes a valuable tool for laboratory data management in cannabis testing laboratories. In addition to reducing manual workloads, and efficient resource management, it helps labs focus on productive lab operations while achieving compliance and regulatory goals with ease.
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.”
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