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The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations: Climate, Cultivation & Genetics – Part 6

By Phil Gibson
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This is Part 6 and the final chapter in The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations series. Click here to see Part 1, here to see Part 2, here to see Part 3, here for part 4 and here for Part 5.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

Figure 1: Precision aeroponics at FarmaGrowers GMP Facility, South Africa

Every objective has to have a vision and a vector of where you want to go and what you want to achieve. “Winging it” is okay for an innovative artistic endeavor where creativity is spontaneous and one-of-a-kind art is produced. Unfortunately, that is not how one creates a top-quality cultivation operation.

Customers expect guarantees of consistency; quality assurance means a purchase is safe to consume. Medicinal products around the world require Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification. These are really just SOPs that document repeatable procedures to guarantee that the most recent batch offers the same results as the first certified effort. This brief covers the importance of documented operating procedures for a successful grow business with high quality customer results.

Figure 2: The objective – trichome covered flowers, DanCann, Denmark

Almost nobody gets excited about discussing quality, but experienced manufacturers know that quality control reduces waste and improves operations. Everyone learns that they have to implement feedback, improvement and quality control procedures to guarantee profitability and longevity in any business.

So, what is an SOP? A standard operating procedure defines ‘a task’ to be performed ‘at a location by a person or a role on a specific schedule.’ These definitions will include role definition, responsibilities, personnel training, equipment & service procedures, material handling, quality assurance controls, record keeping, approved procedures & instructions, documentation, references and appendices, all of which define your business and how it is to operate.

Now, you might ask, we are just growing plants, is all this really necessary? The short answer is, it depends. If you expect to export globally, do business in Europe and other markets, get licensed by Health Canada or some day be approved to ship to other States, then yes. If you are a regional craft cannabis supplier, maybe not, but there are many tasks that are required to grow where a better documented process can benefit your operation and the quality of the product delivered to your consumers.

Figure 3: Flower maintenance, DanCann, Denmark

We provide a bulleted list of recommendations in the full white paper but to touch on a few highlights that every operator should keep in mind, SOPs define the following structures for your business.

Personnel training is done for ‘this task, in this way’ & ‘this role is responsible’

Job descriptions reduce misunderstandings and increase worker ownership in your facility. Documenting your activities minimizes task overlap and conflicts that can lead to no one executing on something that may be important but not urgent. You want to eliminate employees thinking “I didn’t know it was my responsibility.”

Consultants or visitors must be aware of and follow the same requirements as your employees if you are to maintain the quality of your grow. Specific training should be given to anyone that handles or works around toxic chemicals. Safety sheets are not just paper; They keep people alive.

Equipment & Service Procedures

Be direct and specific in your task definitions, i.e., “Use 5ml of soap, clean until no plant matter or debris remains.”

Figure 4: Full GMP certified facility, FarmaGrowers, South Africa

Ideally, grow facilities, equipment and access will be designed with cleaning in mind from the start. This is not always possible but it is the mark of successful manufacturing or production companies.

Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning: think sterile, food safety and consumer consumption protections. SOPs should define cleaning methods and materials. This cleaning is done on schedule and aligned to your preventative maintenance and calibration requirements. Precise results require precise structure for any long-term operation.

We recommend that you integrate pictures and videos in the instructions for your procedures and training so that nothing is left to chance or misinterpreted.

Material Handling, Containers, Labels, Quality Assurance

Personnel contamination/cross-contamination are the death of any grow operation. Do everything you can to limit stray or wandering plant material, dust or debris from migrating from one grow room or area to another. Isolation is a good way to limit outbreaks to a specific room to minimize losses.

Figure 5: Documented SOPs must be followed & reviewed regularly

If something nasty happens to one of your rooms. Good labeling enforced by your quality assurance team is a simple way to increase the likelihood that employees will do a task as intended. This adds to your repeatability as people change jobs or roles are redefined.

Approved Procedures & Instructions

Quality assurance is all about repeatability and intended outcomes. Documenting procedures and intended use enables every new employee to follow the experience of the masters and duplicate their success. Testing, sampling and logging your results along the way enables you to know that you are on schedule and on process, so you can predict your results every time.

Part of your continuous improvement approach will be to deal with exceptions that are not covered by your procedures. Learning about those exceptions and capturing your experience with an improved method will lead to better outcomes the next time around.

Documentation, References, Appendices

Figure 6: Flower sealed & ready for export, DanCann, Denmark

You’ve done all of this hard work to capture your operation, so you need a complete library of your reference work and approach that employees can access. It does your operation no good if you capture your methods and no one ever looks at them again. Training cycles and reviewing your defined procedures is key to a consistent high-quality result.

Hero Award

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Good Manufacturing Procedures (GMP) and Good Agricultural & Collection Practices (GACP), are all terms that will become more familiar as cannabis production joins into one global market. Professional results will be required and national or international certifications will be the guarantees that any global customer can trust that a product meets the standards they expect.

We have many customers in North America and around the world. but DanCann Pharma is the most aggressive when it comes to meeting international standards and results. Producing flower that is so pure that no irradiation is required for export, the DanCann operation is fully certified for production throughout Europe and they are sold-out of capacity for the coming year. They are currently expanding their operations in Denmark and are a solid example to follow for a well-defined repeatable operation. FarmaGrowers in South Africa is a close second in this race with multiple export certifications of their own. The future looks bright for both of these global operations.

For the complete white paper on Top Quality Cultivation Facilities, download the document here.

Brooke Butler, Simplifya
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Five Reasons Everyone in Cannabis Should be Using RegTech

By Brooke Butler
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Brooke Butler, Simplifya

As the cannabis industry continues to grow, regulations will only get more onerous and complex, and enforcement will ramp up. In order to survive, it’s imperative for cannabis business owners and the ancillary companies that support them – such as banks, insurance agencies, law firms and marketers – to keep on top of regulations.

Due to cannabis’ fractured regulatory environment, confounding state and local laws, and the fact that regulations are constantly changing, keeping track of it all can nearly seem impossible at times. But companies don’t need to reinvent the wheel and handle compliance on their own.

There are a host of tools on the market today that can help cannabis related businesses (CRBs) streamline their operations. RegTech solutions can drastically reduce the challenges of navigating compliance, saving companies significant time and money so they can focus on their core competencies. Here, let’s take a look at five of the main reasons everyone in the cannabis ecosystem should seriously consider adopting RegTech solutions today.

1. Simplify the Complex

The heart of RegTech solutions is taking out the guesswork when tackling compliance while mitigating risk. Besides there being a vast number of regulations that vary by state, they’re also not easy to understand – they’re really written for lawyers, can be hundreds of pages long, and don’t offer implementation guidance. Thankfully through RegTech, operators and ancillary companies are alerted when regulations change and are given easy-to-follow implementation and remediation guidelines that can be as easy as checking a box.

Beyond just simplifying compliance, RegTech can substantially increase operational efficiency.

As the cannabis industry has been rapidly growing and maturing, we’ve been seeing a major uptick in M&A activity – M&A activity tripled in the sector from 2020 to 2021 – and with each new state a company enters, comes a host of new regulatory challenges. When expanding to a new state, RegTech solutions provide updates in real time, making sure, for example when you expand to Ohio, it’s not at the expense of complying with regulations in your core market of Illinois. Also, from an operations strategy perspective, RegTech solutions can be incredibly useful in helping companies decide what markets to pursue, as they can offer regulatory snapshots that compare tax laws, average margins, consumer segments, product stipulations, marketing restrictions and more. Thus besides simplifying compliance, RegTech can substantially increase operational efficiency.

Since cannabis is such a highly regulated industry, there are a ton of documents an operator has to keep on hand and be able to produce in a moment’s notice. Through RegTech, operators can store and organize all documents that are applicable to them electronically. So, when an inspector comes into a dispensary for a surprise inspection, rather than sweating bullets and digging through six filing cabinets trying to locate say a visitor log from three years ago, using RegTech a manager can quickly search records electronically, download and print the needed document, pass the inspection and go back to work.

2. Save Costs by Streamlining Compliance

While adopting RegTech solutions has a cost, the cost savings companies yield from RegTech way exceed the investment. RegTech providers have teams of dedicated analysts constantly tracking regulations and providing updates, making it so companies don’t need to hire much more costly lawyers to track regulations and amend policies and procedures. Rather, they can tap into RegTech solutions and leverage decades of experience and lean on the best regulatory experts in the field, while saving a lot of money.

RegTech providers have teams of dedicated analysts constantly tracking regulations and providing updates,

Just to give a small example of the cost savings RegTech can provide, on average a CRB spends over $20,000 to produce a new SOP package when using an attorney and nearly $8,000 when updating an SOP package using an attorney. Compare that to Simplifya’s fully customizable SOP package, where a CRB spends on average less than $1,600 to produce a new SOP package and less than $650 to update an SOP package – a 92% savings.

When considering costs, it’s important to think holistically and anticipate potential problems that could come up. One of the biggest pain points for companies starting up operations or entering new markets is complying with confusing tax codes – no industry is taxed to the degree cannabis is, and it’s easy to lose sight of tax obligations when planning operations. Unanticipated withholding requirements can create serious cash flow problems. RegTech solutions clearly outline requirements, as well as track updates, which help companies plan operations and expansion plans and prevent nasty tax surprises from creeping up, and they’re a much cheaper alternative to hiring tax lawyers.

While there are tremendous growth opportunities in cannabis, the industry is also facing significant headwinds, including the high cost of capital, supply and demand misalignments, and shrinking margins, and as we head towards recession, cost efficiency will become more and more important. Not only can RegTech help companies survive by helping ensure they stay compliant and don’t get fined or even shut down for breaching regulations, they also help companies run more efficiently and save major costs on operations.

3. Hold Your Employees Accountable

In addition to using RegTech to stay on top of compliance, it can be a powerful HR tool as well. Companies can utilize RegTech platforms to make and track assignments and tasks for employees. If you’ve already spent the time and money to create SOPs, RegTech tools are essential to making sure they’re actually being followed correctly. 

As many cannabis companies are expanding rapidly and bringing new employees into their fold – particularly those that are engaging in M&A – it can be difficult to get employees up to speed and following SOPs. RegTech automation and tracking solutions help flatten the learning curve and ensure employees are completing tasks on time, boosting efficiency and preventing problems that may arise – and if problems do arise, the tools help pinpoint where and when for efficient remediation. And if you’re an MSO or a SSO with multiple locations, RegTech allows employers to keep track of their dispersed employees without having to be in 10 places at once. This holds employees accountable for their actions for smooth operations while reducing growing pains.

4. Identify Issues Before They Become an Issue

The most compelling reason for having strict regulations in the cannabis industry in the first place is to protect consumer and patient health. Given the long, brutal history of cannabis prohibition, where lies and misconceptions about cannabis consumption being “dangerous” were perpetuated in the mainstream, the last thing the industry needs is people consuming products that are in any way contaminated. If you skirt the rules and manage to put out compromised products without a regulator catching and dinging you first, consumers may get sick. This can lead to a recall and tarnish a brand’s reputation. Competition is steep in this industry and even one incident can be irrecoverable. If consumers have reason to believe you’re not putting out consistent, safe products, they’ll buy from your competitor instead.

RegTech helps companies track all processes and procedures so that they can spot problems before they occur and ensure nothing dangerous makes its way to the public, which in turn shields brand reputation. Also, it’s important to note – in the cannabis ecosystem, every company you work with has to be licensed. If you work with an entity that’s not, you are very liable. Tracking licensing information is burdensome, especially for retailers and ancillary businesses like lenders and insurers who work with many vendors. Luckly, RegTech providers have already done the heavy lifting, pulling APIs into state databases and creating tracking systems of licenses that make it easy for companies to ensure every entity they work with is operating with a valid license. This saves companies from having to hire people to track licensing information on a weekly or even daily basis, which can be very costly, and more importantly, keeps them compliant and prevents slip ups that could jeopardize consumer and patient health. 

5. Looking Towards the Future, Regulations will Only Become more Complex – Only the Compliant Will Survive

A common misconception people have about the cannabis industry is thinking that federal policies like SAFE banking will be a catch-all to their banking woes, opening up the floodgate to institutional investment. The fact of the matter is, however, SAFE banking would be ineffective without RegTech. Cannabis companies need to demonstrate reliability and a history of compliance in order to attract investors and accumulate capital, and they do this through using RegTech platforms. Conversely, financial institutions also use RegTech to verify licenses, ensure legitimacy and assess lending risks based on the locations in which their borrowers operate. After SAFE banking is finally enacted, since larger institutional investors have so much on the line, they’re going to be particularly careful and only invest in those companies that can comprehensively demonstrate a history of compliance. This will also be the case for major CPG companies looking to acquire cannabis companies – they’ll want companies that have used RegTech to show compliance and optimize operations, since those companies will be more trustworthy and transitioning them under new management will be easier. In every major industry other than cannabis, RegTech solutions have been adapted. This is where cannabis is headed, and the companies that adopt solutions and demonstrate compliance will come out ahead.

Cannabis companies need to demonstrate reliability and a history of compliance in order to attract investors and accumulate capital

The other major misconception some people have about the cannabis industry is that once cannabis is legalized on a federal level, state and local regulations will somehow just go away, so current RegTech solutions may become ‘obsolete.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth. In no world is there going to a federal legalization system that says states can no longer create their own rules around cannabis. Think about the alcohol or gambling industries. Alcohol and gambling are federally legal, but every state – and even some counties and cities within those states – can have very different rules. Federal legalization will just mean additional regulations will be piled on and thus RegTech will only become more important.

While many companies in the cannabis space have already adopted RegTech solutions, there are still many others that have taken a reactive rather than proactive approach towards compliance. When major legislation like SAFE banking or federal legalization is approved, there will be a paradigm shift and RegTech will be deemed more essential quickly. Those who have implemented RegTech will have distinct advantages. To survive and thrive in the industry going forward, it’s prudent to proactively handle compliance and adopt RegTech solutions today.

Transportation & Supply Issues in Cannabis Staffing: How to Get Unstuck

By Melita Balestieri
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Anyone in cannabis will tell you that complex transportation and supply issues are stalling industry growth and impacting employers’ ability to hire teams for the critical roles that keep product moving on schedule.

Since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, global and domestic supply chains have suffered bottlenecks caused by ever-changing public health policies and ongoing materials and labor shortages. While the status of transportation as an essential business kept other essential sectors, such as cannabis and grocery, chugging along, the current situation is still challenging.

Transportation remains the biggest supply-side problem, with the American Trucking Association reporting a shortage of an estimated 80,000 truckers in October 2021. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also continues to report high numbers of job openings across supply-chain jobs such as warehousing and transportation.

Cannabis businesses, from multistate operators to distributors to delivery service startups, are hardly immune to these issues. In fact, they face the additional hurdle of restrictive federal regulations, including the illegality of transporting cannabis across state borders. For example, this stipulation means that the over-saturation of flower in California cannot be addressed in a naturally symbiotic manner by shipping to states whose markets demand more flower, such as Arizona and New Mexico.

In the aggregate, these challenges impact employers’ operational and logistics goals and diminish candidates’ interest to work in a highly scrutinized industry. Many trucking companies have found it a challenge to attract drivers. Low pay, grueling schedules, and zero-tolerance cannabis testing for drivers despite legalization have led to an exodus of truckers in the U.S. and Canada.

Despite these obstacles, cannabis employers can still embrace smart strategies to attract quality employees and create much-needed stability to thrive in the rapidly changing marketplace.

Cannabis, COVID & the Great Resignation

In recent months, when it seemed America was finally emerging from COVID’s long shadow, the Great Resignation dampened business optimism. Employee turnover hit cannabis hard—especially in California, where other challenges like a thriving illicit market, high taxes and wholesale price compression have impacted companies’ ability to operate smoothly. Transportation and supply issues compound the problems.

For example, even transporting federally legal hemp in California and elsewhere has its headaches. Our company’s trimmer certification course uses hemp for training purposes. We ship the hemp directly to students’ homes so they can participate in virtual training sessions. Although our company has certified that the course packet contains only hemp, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will not ship it, regardless of whether the delivery location is in or out of state. We therefore must rely on a private carrier to transport the course packets to class participants, which is more time consuming and costly

Staffing Strategies for Transportation & Supply Jobs

Cannabis employers have several traditional and non-traditional tools at their disposal to address transportation and supply-related staffing.

While standard ecommerce jobs are synonymous with turnover, here lies an opportunity for cannabis operators to differentiate themselves. This is the cannabis industry, after all, and plenty of individuals who might not normally be interested in the transportation or supply aspect of ecommerce, might be far more open to those types of roles if they know the jobs involve cannabis.

What can employers do to attract these more receptive candidates to their organizations? Hone in on workers who have a passion for the plant. In job descriptions, position cannabis messaging front and center and conduct outreach through LinkedIn groups and other social media platforms to groups and individuals that have a cannabis focus.

Salary and Benefits

These days, a competitive salary simply is not enough to entice the right employees. A solid benefits package goes a long way to establishing trust between employers and employees and provides employees with a level of comfort and reassurance that they are supported during these tumultuous times. For example, companies must prioritize healthcare benefits and consider including coverage for part-time workers on the supply side of the cannabis industry.

Bonuses

Bonuses are another great way to catch the eye of potential employees, but bonuses must be developed within a framework designed for retention. Cannabis employers who establish performance bonuses and loyalty bonuses also increase that ever-important aspect of trust within their companies.

Safety

A transparent and robust HR plan that addresses safety concerns—COVID and beyond—can affect employees’ comfort for certain supply or transport positions that may involve increased public exposure or enhanced personal safety risks. Be clear with employees about the system that’s in place to support them in the event of unforeseen emergencies or injuries.

Procedures

Cannabis employers should also be aware of the importance of having compliance-focused internal transportation standard operating procedures and protections for employees. These policies can be a key factor in attracting both drivers and additional transport and supply experts from other regulated transport industries such as food, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Candidates without a cannabis background will be more drawn to companies that provide a well-developed and safe infrastructure.

Smart Cannabis Staffing Solutions: The Time is Now

Federal cannabis legalization is coming, and with that nationwide sea change other issues in cannabis supply and transport will emerge. How will cannabis transport consolidate? Will the nation’s top carriers simply take over?

Regardless of what those answers might be, the need to embrace smart staffing solutions now is imperative. Providing a solid base wage with health benefits, and making it clear to current employees and job candidates that there’s an internal infrastructure of support—from HR to loyalty bonuses—is the best way to tackle the transportation and supply issues to position your company for future success.

Beyond Compliance: Understanding and Combating Contamination

By Jill Ellsworth MS, RDN, Tess Eidem, Ph.D.
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As an emerging field in cannabis, contaminant testing remains a gray area for many businesses. The vast differences in state-by-state regulations, along with the frequent changes of previously established rules make testing a difficult, time-consuming process. But at its core, the science and reasoning behind why we test cannabis is very clear – consumer safety and quality assurance are key factors in any legal, consumer market. The implications of federal legalization make cannabis testing even more important to the future of the cannabis supply chain. Understanding the types of contaminants, their sources and how to prevent them is essential to avoiding failures, recalls and risking consumer safety.

When talking about cannabis contaminant testing there are four groups of contaminants: pesticides, heavy metals, foreign materials and microbes. The microbes found on cannabis include plant pathogens, post-harvest spoiling microbes, allergens, toxin release and human pathogens. While all of these can be lurking on the surface of cannabis, the specific types that are tested for in each state vary widely. Understanding the full scope of contaminants and looking beyond state-specific compliance requirements, cultivators will be able to prevent these detrimental risks and prepare their business for the future.

Environmental controls are essential to monitor and regulate temperature and humidity

Beyond just the health of the plant, both medical patients and adult use consumers can be adversely affected by microbial contaminants. To immunocompromised patients, Aspergillus can be life-threatening and both adult use and medical consumers are susceptible to allergic reactions to moldy flower. But Aspergillus is just one of the many contaminants that are invisible to the human eye and can live on the plant’s surface. Several states have intensive testing regulations when it comes to the full breadth of possible harmful contaminants. Nevada, for example, has strict microbial testing requirements and, in addition to Aspergillus, the state tests for Salmonella, STEC, Enterobacteriaceae, coliforms and total yeast and mold. Over 15 states test for total yeast and mold and the thresholds vary from allowing less than 100,000 colony forming units to allowing less than 1,000 colony forming units. These microbes are not uncommon appearances on cannabis – in fact, they are ever-present – so understanding them as a whole, beyond regulatory standards is a certain way to future-proof a business. With such vast differences in accepted levels of contamination per state, the best preparation for the future and regulations coming down the pipeline is understanding contamination, addressing it at its source and harvesting disease-free cannabis.

The risk of contamination is present at every stage of the cultivation process and encompasses agricultural practices, manufacturing processes and their intersection. From cultivation to manufacturing, there are factors that can introduce contamination throughout the supply chain. A quality control infrastructure should be employed in a facility and checkpoints within the process to ensure aseptic operations.

Microbial monitoring methods can include frequent/consistent testing

Cultivators should test their raw materials, including growing substrates and nutrient water to ensure it is free of microbial contamination. Air quality plays an important role in the cultivation and post-harvest processes, especially with mold contamination. Environmental controls are essential to monitor and regulate temperature and humidity and ensure unwanted microbes cannot thrive and decrease the value of the product or make it unsafe for worker handling or consumers. Developing SOPs to validate contact surfaces are clean, using proper PPE and optimizing worker flow can all help to prevent cross-contamination and are part of larger quality assurance measures to prevent microbes from spreading across cultivars and harvests.

Methods of microbial examination include air quality surveillance, ATP surface and water monitoring, raw materials testing, and species identification. Keeping control of the environment that product is coming into contact with and employing best practices throughout will minimize the amount of contamination that is present before testing. The solution to avoiding worst case scenarios following an aseptic, quality controlled process is utilizing a safe, post-harvest kill-step, much like the methods used in the food and beverage industries with the oversight of the FDA.

The goal of the grower should be to grow clean and stay clean throughout the shelf life of the product. In order to do this, it is essential to understand the critical control points within the cultivation and post-harvest processes and implement proper kill-steps. However, if a product is heavily bio-burdened, there are methods to recover contaminated product including decontamination, remediation and destroying the product. These measures come with their own strengths and weaknesses and cannot replace the quality assurance programs developed by the manufacturer.

Best Practices for Training New Hires and Documenting Operations

By Dede Perkins
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Let’s just say it. There is an undeniable chaos in the cannabis industry. It doesn’t matter if you’re a big or small operator, it’s likely that you don’t have a documented system for creating and managing ever-changing SOPs or for consistently training all employees on the most current versions of those SOPs. This chaos is often the result of rapid growth, mergers and acquisitions, and the ever-present turnover in our industry. When department leadership changes, and it often does, established policies and procedures are often left behind. In some cases, this is a positive sign of growth. As a company outgrows SOPs and as it develops more sophisticated ways to cultivate, extract, process, manufacture, package and sell cannabis and cannabis products, inevitably, the old ways of doing business need to be replaced. For those operators who have prioritized operational excellence, whether they want to position their company for new investment, merger or acquisition, or just want to create a consistent and standardized, branded product, it’s critical to get control of SOPs, training and documentation.

Food processing and sanitation
By standardizing and documenting safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns

As with most big goals, to obtain operational excellence, you need to break the goal into manageable steps. Assuming you have accessible quality policies and procedures in place, properly training employees when they first start work and on an ongoing basis as policies and procedures change is the number one key to successful operations. When employees know how to do their job and understand what is expected of them, they are positioned for success. When employees are successful, it follows that the company will also be successful. Documenting operations is a second important step in obtaining operational excellence. While training and documentation appear to be different, in best-practice organizations, they are inextricably linked.

One Set of SOPs

Those of us who have been in the cannabis industry for a while have experienced firsthand or heard stories of facility staff working off of two sets of SOPs. There’s the set of SOPs that are printed or digitally available for the regulators, let’s call them the “ideal” set, and then there are the SOPs that actually get implemented on a day-to-day basis. While this is common, it’s risky and undermines the foundation of operational excellence. Employees often know there are two sets of SOPs. Whether they express it or not, many are uncomfortable with the intentional or unintentional deception. When regulators arrive, will they have to bend the truth or even lie about daily operations? Taking the time to establish and implement one set of approved SOPs that is compliant with both external regulations and internal standards is good for employee morale, productivity and ultimately, profits.

What’s the best way to get control of a facility’s SOPs? Again, break it into manageable steps:

  • First, task someone with reviewing all SOPs that are floating around. Determine if any are non-compliant, which ones need to be tossed and which ones need to be revised so they work for the company as well as outside regulatory authorities.
  • At a minimum, establish a two-person team to draft, review, publish and distribute the final SOPs. Ensure that at least one member of the team has management level authority. Assign that employee the responsibility of reviewing the SOPs before “publication” and distribution.
  • Archive, delete, or actually throw away outdated or non-compliant SOPs
  • Revise or create new best-practice SOPs that are in compliance with external regulations and internal standards
  • Establish a system to update SOPs when external regulations and internal standards change
  • Use a naming convention that distinguishes draft SOPs from final SOPs, for example, “Post-Harvest Procedure, FINAL”
  • Inform employees that they will be retrained on the new SOPs and that approved SOPs will always have the word “Final” in the title
  • Store the final SOPs in an easily accessible location and give employees access, not only during training, but on an ongoing basis

Centralized Repository for Final SOPs

Storing final, approved SOPs in one easily accessible, centralized location and giving employees access sounds simple, but again, this is the cannabis industry, so this often doesn’t happen. Many of us have or are currently working for an organization that stores SOPs in multiple places. Each department may have its own way of updating, disseminating and storing SOPs. Some SOPs are stored in a printed binder stuffed in a drawer or left on a bottom shelf. Others are stored digitally. Some use both systems, which creates confusion. Who knows if the digital versions or the printed versions are the most current? Surely someone knows, but often the front-line staff do not.“Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees.”

Establishing a centralized repository for final, approved SOPs is the foundation of operational excellence. It lets employees know that operations are organized and controlled, and it reassures regulatory authorities and external stakeholders—think insurers, bankers, investors—that the company prioritizes compliance and organization. And external stakeholders who believe that an organization is proactive and well-run tend to be more forgiving when the inevitable missteps occur. Companies that are organized, have effective training systems, regularly conduct internal audits to identify potential issues and take identifiable action steps when necessary to remediate issues, receive fewer deficiency notices, violations and fines than their less organized competitors.

Train Employees

Many states require cannabis operators to provide a specific number of training hours prior to an employee beginning work, and a specific number of continuing and refresher training hours annually. Once you’ve established a single set of compliant SOPs and have stored them in one accessible location, it’s time to train your employees. To do so, set clear expectations and decide who is responsible for what. Is the HR manager responsible for initial onboarding and training? Are department managers responsible for ongoing and annual training? Create a training responsibility chart that works best for your company; write it down and share with all stakeholders.

Documenting all key areas of operation on a recurring basis will help you keep track of a large facility and workforce

The next step is to figure out how to train your employees. Individuals have different learning styles, so ideally, you’ll offer multiple ways for them to master the requirements of their position. Assign written materials and if possible, attach short videos showing the best way to complete a task. Follow up with a quiz to determine comprehension and a conversation with a department lead or manager to answer questions and review the key take-aways. Ideally, the department manager or lead employee will work with the employee until they are competent and comfortable taking on new assigned tasks and responsibilities.

Sum It Up 

Operational excellence begins with:

  • Knowledge of and access to current external rules and regulations and internal standards
  • One set of approved and easily accessible policies and SOPs that comply with both external and internal standards
  • An initial training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • An ongoing training system with clearly assigned roles, responsibilities, and goals
  • Systems to:
    • Test knowledge before employees begin unsupervised work
    • Stay up-to-date with all changes to external rules and regulations and internal standards
    • Control policy and SOP revision process
    • Inform all stakeholders when policies and SOPs change
    • Test that employees understand new standards
    • Document all key areas of operation on a recurring basis
    • Address deficiencies and evaluate whether SOP revisions are warranted
    • Document and implement necessary remediation when necessary

For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking you don’t have time for this, ask yourself, “Can you afford not to?”

For those of you committed to operational excellence and doing what it takes to get there, congratulations on being a visionary leader. Your efforts will pay dividends for your own company and will help the cannabis industry grow into a well-respected, profitable industry that improves lives.

Reducing Cross Contamination in Your Lab

By Nathan Libbey
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Cross Contamination

Cross Contamination – noun – “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures. – (Mariam Webster, 2021). Cross contamination is not a new concept in the clinical and food lab industries; many facilities have significant design aspects as well as SOPs to deliver the least amount of contaminants into the lab setting. For cannabis labs, however, often the exponential growth leads to a circumstance where the lab simply isn’t large enough for the number of samples processed and number of analytical instruments and personnel needed to process them. Cross contamination for cannabis labs can mean delayed results, heightened occurrences of false positives, and ultimately lost customers – why would you pay for analysis of your clean product in a dirty facility? The following steps can save you the headaches associated with cross contamination:

Wash (and dry) your hands properly

Flash back to early pandemic times when the Tik Tok “Ghen Co Vy” hand washing song was the hotness – we had little to no idea that the disease would be fueled mostly by aerosol transmission, but the premise is the same, good hand hygiene is good to reduce cross contamination. Hands are often the source of bacteria, both resident (here for the long haul; attached to your hands) and transient (easy to remove; just passing through), as they come into contact with surfaces from the bathroom to the pipettor daily (Robinson et al, 2016). Glove use coupled with adequate hand washing are good practices to reduce cross contamination from personnel to a product sample. Additionally, the type of hand drying technique can reduce the microbial load on the bathroom floors and, subsequently tracked into the lab. A 2013 study demonstrated almost double the contamination from air blade technology versus using a paper towel to dry your hands (Margas et al, 2013).

Design Your Lab for Separation

Microbes are migratory. In fact, E. coli can travel at speeds up to 15 body lengths per second. Compared to the fastest Olympians running the 4X100m relay, with an average speed of 35 feet per second or 6 body lengths, this bacterium is a gold medal winner, but we don’t want that in the lab setting (Milo and Phillips, 2021). New lab design keeps this idea of bacterial travel in mind, but for those labs without a new build, steps can be made to prevent contamination:

  • Try to keep traffic flow moving in one direction. Retracing steps can lead to contamination of a previous work station
  • Use separate equipment (e.g. cabinets, pipettes) for each process/step
  • Separate pre- and post-pcr areas
  • Physical separation – use different rooms, add walls, partitions, etc.

Establish, Train and Adhere to SOPs

Design SOPs that include everything- from hygiene to test procedures and sanitation.

High turnover for personnel in labs causes myriad issues. It doesn’t take long for a lab that is buttoned up with cohesive workflows to become a willy-nilly hodgepodge of poor lab practices. A lack of codified Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can lead to a lab rife with contaminants and no clear way to troubleshoot the issue. Labs should design strict SOPs that include everything from hand hygiene to test procedures and sanitation. Written SOPs, according to the WHO, should be available at all work stations in their most recent version in order to reduce biased results from testing (WHO, 2009). These SOPs should be relayed to each new employee and training on updated SOPs should be conducted on an ongoing basis. According to Sutton, 2010, laboratory SOPs can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Quality requirements
  • Media
  • Cultures
  • Equipment
  • Training
  • Sample handling
  • Lab operations
  • Testing methodology
  • Data handling/reporting/archiving
  • Investigations

Establish Controls and Monitor Results

Scanning electron micrograph shows a colony of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Photo courtesy of CDC, Janice Haney Carr
Scanning electron micrograph shows a colony of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Photo courtesy of CDC, Janice Haney Carr

It may be difficult for labs to keep tabs on positivity and fail rates, but these are important aspects of a QC regimen. For microbiological analysis, labs should use an internal positive control to validate that 1) the method is working properly and 2) positives are a result of target analytes found in the target matrix, not an internal lab contamination strain. Positive controls can be an organism of choice, such as Salmonella Tranoroa, and can be tagged with a marker, such as Green Fluorescent Protein in order to differentiate the control strain. These controls will allow a lab tech to discriminate between a naturally contaminated specimen vs. a positive as a result of cross-contamination.

Labs should, in addition to having good QC practices, keep track of fail rates and positivity rates. This can be done as total lab results by analysis, but also can be broken down into customers. For instance, a lab fail rate for pesticides averages 4% for dried flower samples. If, during a given period of review, this rate jumps past 6% or falls below 2%, their may be an issue with instrumentation, personnel or the product itself. Once contamination is ruled out, labs can then present evidence of spikes in fail rates to growers who can then remediate in their own facilities. These efforts in concert will inherently drive down fail rates, increase lab capacity and efficiency, and result in cost savings for all parties associated.

Continuous Improvement is the Key

Cannabis testing labs are, compared to their food and clinical counterparts, relatively new. The lack of consistent state and federal regulation coupled with unfathomable growth each year, means many labs have been in the “build the plane as you fly” mode. As the lab environment matures, simple QC, SOP and hygiene changes can make an incremental differences and drive improvements for labs as well as growers and manufacturers they support. Lab management can, and should, take steps to reduce cross contamination, increase efficiency and lower costs; The first step is always the hardest, but continuous improvement cannot begin until it has been taken.


References

Margas, E, Maguire, E, Berland, C. R, Welander, F, & Holah, J. T. (2013). Assessment of the environmental microbiological cross contamination following hand drying with paper hand towels or an air blade dryer. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 115(2), 572-582.

Mariam Webster (2021. Cross contamination. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cross%20contamination

Milo, M., and Phillips, R. (2021). How fast do cells move? Cell biology by the numbers. Retrieved from http://book.bionumbers.org/how-fast-do-cells-move/

Robinson, Andrew L, Lee, Hyun Jung, Kwon, Junehee, Todd, Ewen, Perez Rodriguez, Fernando, & Ryu, Dojin. (2016). Adequate Hand Washing and Glove Use Are Necessary To Reduce Cross-Contamination from Hands with High Bacterial Loads. Journal of Food Protection, 79(2), 304–308. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-342

Sutton, Scott. (2010). The importance of a strong SOP system in the QC microbiology lab. Journal of GXP Compliance, 14(2), 44.

World Health Organization. (2009). Good Laboratory Practice Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tdr/publications/documents/glp-handbook.pdf

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Quality Systems 101: CAPA Programs Drive Improvement & Prevent Costly Mistakes

By David Vaillencourt
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No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.

Let’s consider the following situations:

  • Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
  • You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
  • A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’

Do you…

  • Document the issue?
  • Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
  • Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?

Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:

You don’t document the issue

I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.

  • “It’s not a big deal”
  • “It was a one off”
  • “The glasses probably broke in transit”
  • “They are cheap and easily replaceable”
  • “It’s not worth the time”
Tracking and documenting supplier shipments can help you identify supply chain issues.

In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.

Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?

You perform an investigation

Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?

Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.

labsphoto
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail.

Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.

For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.

Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.

What does a CAPA program do?

The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:

An effective tool for investigating the true root cause

First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.

System for continuous improvement

Gathering info from a customer complaint like batch or product IDs can be crucial in a CAPA system

Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.

This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!

Key inputs in a CAPA system 

If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs. 

Information that feeds into your CAPA system:

Customer complaints

Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.

This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…

Laboratory test results

This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.

Infrastructure & environmental controls/monitoring

Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.

Supplier information

Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.

Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?

One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.

In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.

Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?

How Effective is Your Internal Auditing Program?

By David Vaillencourt
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The word “audit” evokes various emotions depending on your role in an organization and the context of the audit. While most are familiar with and loathe the IRS’s potential for a tax audit, the audits we are going to discuss today are (or should be) welcomed – proactive internal quality audits. A softer term that is also acceptable is “self-assessment.” These are independent assessments conducted to determine how effective an organization’s risk management, processes and general governance is. 

“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” – Maya Angelou

Internal quality audits are critical to ensuring the safety of products, workers, consumers and the environment. When planned and performed periodically, these audits provide credible, consistent and objective evidence to inform the organization of its risks, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Ask yourself the question: do your clients/vendors rely on you to produce reliable, consistent and safe products? Assuming the answer is yes, what confidence do you have, and where is the documented evidence to support it?

Compliance units within cannabis businesses are typically responsible for ensuring a business stays legally compliant with state and federal regulations. This level of minimum compliance is critical to prevent fines and ensure licenses are not revoked. However, compliance audits rarely include fundamental components that leave cannabis operators exposed to many unnecessary risks.

Internal quality audits are critical to ensuring the safety of products, workers, consumers and the environment.

As a producer of medical and adult-use products that are ingested, inhaled or consumed in other forms by our friends, family and neighbors, how can you be sure that these products are produced safely and consistently? Are you confident that the legal requirements mandated by your state cannabis control board are sufficient? Judging by the number of recalls and frustrations voiced by the industry regarding the myriad of regulations, I would bet the answer is no.

What questions do internal audits address? Some examples include:

  • Are you operating as management intends?
  • How effective is your system in meeting specified objectives? These objectives could include quality metrics of your products, on-time delivery rates and other client/customer satisfaction metrics.
  • Are there opportunities to improve?
  • Are you doing what you say you do (in your SOPs), and do you have the recorded evidence (records) to prove it?
  • Are you meeting the requirements of all applicable government regulations?

There are potential drawbacks to internal audits. For one, as impartiality is essential in internal audits, it may be challenging to identify an impartial internal auditor in a small operation. If your team always feels like it is in firefighting mode, it may feel like a luxury to take the time to pull members out of their day-to-day duties and disrupt ongoing operations for an audit. Some fear that as internal assessments are meant to be more thorough than external assessments, a laundry list of to-do items may be uncovered due to the audit. But, these self-assessments often uncover issues that have resulted in operational efficiencies in the first place. This resulting “laundry list” then affords a proactive tool to implement corrective actions in an organized manner that can prevent the recurrence of major issues, as well as prevent new issues. The benefits of internal audits outweigh the drawbacks; not to mention, conducting internal audits is required by nearly every globally-recognized program, both voluntary (e.g. ISO 9001 or ASTM Internationals’s Cannabis Certification Program) and government required programs such as 21 CFR 211 for Pharmaceuticals.

Internal Auditing is a catalyst for improving an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency by providing insight and recommendations based on analyses and assessments of data and business processes. Additional benefits of internal audits include giving your organization the means to:

  • Ensure compliance to the requirements of internal, international and industry standards as well as regulations and customer requirements
  • Determine the effectiveness of the implemented system in meeting specified objectives (quality, environmental, financial)
  • Explore opportunities for improvement
  • Meet statutory and regulatory requirements
  • Provide feedback to Top Management
  • Lower the cost of poor quality

Findings from all audits must be addressed. This is typically done in accordance with a CAPA (Corrective Action Preventive Action) program. To many unfamiliar with Quality Management Systems, this may be a new term. As of Jan 1, 2021, this is now a requirement for all cannabis licensed operators in Colorado. Many other states require a CAPA program or similar. Continuing education units (CEUs) are available through ASTM International’s CAPA training program, which was developed specifically for the cannabis industry.

Examples of common audit findings that require CAPAs include:

  • Calibration – Production and test equipment must be calibrated to ensure they provide accurate and repeatable results.
  • Document and record control – Documents and records need to be readily accessible but protected from unintended use.
  • Supplier management – Most standards have various requirements for supplier management that may include auditing suppliers, monitoring supplier performance, only using suppliers certified to specific standards, etc.
  • Internal audits – Believe it or not, since internal audits are required by many programs, it’s not uncommon to have a finding related to internal audits! Findings from an internal audit can include not conducting audits on schedule, not addressing audit findings or not having a properly qualified internal auditor. Are you looking for more guidance? Last year, members of ASTM International’s D37 Committee on Cannabis approved a Standard Guide for Cannabis and Hemp Operation Compliance Audits, ASTM D8308-21.

If you are still on the fence about the value of an internal audit, given the option of an inspector uncovering a non-conformance or your own team discovering and then correcting it, which would you prefer? With fines easily exceeding $100,000 by many cannabis enforcement units, the answer should be clear. Internal audits are a valuable tool that should not be feared.

Growing the Seed of Sale: Integrating Security with Business Opportunity

By Ryan Schonfeld
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Anyone in the cannabis industry is well aware that theft of crops can economically devastate a grower. Security is critical, and thankfully, growers and dispensaries have many tools available to protect their investment. There is simply no excuse for not having a solid security posture to keep your business in compliance, from public-private partnerships to advanced security tools – in fact, it’s required in most jurisdictions.

In 2020, nationwide cannabis sales increased 67%, and support for legal marijuana reached an all-time high of 68%. New Frontier Data found that U.S. legal cannabis market is projected to double to $41.5 billion by 2025.

The industry’s advancement impacts numerous areas such as job and tax revenue creation and providing a wide variety of valuable opportunities. For cannabis facilities to keep up with the market expansion and experience success, they must face two significant challenges: achieving adequate security and efficient business operations. Though both can be seen as separate concerns, growers and producers must merge processes and solutions to tackle the issue as a whole.

Dispensaries are prime targets for burglary. Defending your storefront requires a comprehensive security plan

Along with rapid growth, dispensaries face traditional security risks, such as workplace violence and retail theft, while cybersecurity risks have also become more prevalent. These potential issues make it clear that the stakes are high, and as the potential impact on a business rises, the need for real-time, predictive response increases. Insider threats are another issue plaguing the industry when you look at the rate of theft, diversion and burglary that is attributable to employees.

The cannabis market is complex: it’s expanding rapidly, has to meet essential regulatory requirements and faces high-security risks. Therefore, security needs to be looked at holistically since it can be challenging to determine where a potential threat may originate.

With security top of mind, it is critical to move away from responsive behaviors and seek ways to manage security in a manner that gets ahead of threats, prevent them before they happen and respond to them in real-time. But does a grower or retailer have the time and expertise to manage all this while keeping an eye on how security affects the business?

Remote Security Operations

The ability to comply with government regulations and protect a valuable cannabis crop at all stages of its journey from seed to sale makes security systems a mission-critical asset for cannabis growers. Security operations centers create a safer and more productive environment and provide state-of-the-art tools to protect employees, retail locations and grow facilities. But some businesses in the cannabis market may not have the resources or space to have their centralized security operations, leading them to piece-meal security together or do the best with what they can afford at the time. Running these facilities can also be prohibitively expensive.

Security operations centers create a safer and more productive environment and provide state-of-the-art tools to protect employees, retail locations and grow facilities.

But new options take the process of security off the table. The business can focus on the growth of its core functions. Remote security operations services allow companies to take advantage of advanced security services typically only possible in larger enterprise environments. These services are offered on a subscription basis, delivered through the cloud, and are entirely customizable to detect risks unique to your business operations while saving each company significant expense.

Centralized security operations centers leverage intelligent tools, standard operating procedures and proven analytic methods to provide cannabis facilities with the information and guidance necessary to mitigate issues like retail or grow theft before they can have a significant impact.

The integrated, holistic response center staffed by experienced operators and security experts delivers a comprehensive security and regulatory compliance method. This approach is designed to provide complete data about what is happening across a cannabis business, from seed to sale, and how individual events can impact the company as a whole. As a result, stakeholders get the security intelligence they need, without the high overhead, personnel investments and complex daily management.

For those businesses in the cannabis market looking to supplement their security operations with other workforce but may not have the budget or infrastructure to do so, remote security operations services are something you should consider. With the experts handling all the heavy lifting, leaders can focus on growth. And, right now, in the cannabis industry, the sky is the limit in terms of opportunity.

ISO/IEC 17025 Accreditation Falls Short for Cannabis Testing Laboratories

By Kathleen May
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What is the role of the Quality Control (QC) Laboratory?

The Quality Control (QC) laboratory serves as one of the most critical functions in consumer product manufacturing. The QC laboratory has the final say on product release based on adherence to established product specifications. Specifications establish a set of criteria to which a product should conform to be considered acceptable for its intended use. Specifications are proposed, justified and approved as part of an overall strategy to ensure the quality, safety, and consistency of consumer products. Subsequently, the quality of consumer products is determined by design, development, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) controls, product and process validations, and the specifications applied throughout product development and manufacturing. These specifications are specifically the validated test methods and procedures and the established acceptance criteria for product release and throughout shelf life/stability studies.

The Code of Federal Regulations, 21 CFR Part 211, Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals, provides the minimum requirements for the manufacture of safe products that are consumed by humans or animals. More specifically, 21 CFR Part 211: Subpart I-Laboratory Controls, outlines the requirements and expectations for the quality control laboratory and drug product testing. Additionally, 21 CFR Part 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food: Subpart B-Processes and Controls states that appropriate QC operations must be implemented to ensure food products are safe for consumption and food packing materials and components are safe and fit for purpose. Both food and drug products must be tested against established specifications to verify quality and safety, and laboratory operations must have the appropriate processes and procedures to support and defend testing results.

ISO/IEC 17025, General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories is used to develop and implement laboratory management systems. Originally known as ISO/IEC Guide 25, first released in 1978, ISO/IEC 17025 was created with the belief that “third party certification systems [for laboratories] should, to the extent possible, be based on internationally agreed standards and procedures”7. National accreditation bodies are responsible for accrediting laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025. Accreditation bodies are responsible for assessing the quality system and technical aspects of a laboratory’s Quality Management System (QMS) to determine compliance to the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025. ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is pursued by many laboratories as a way to set them apart from competitors. In some cannabis markets accreditation to the standard is mandatory.

The approach to ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is typically summarizing the standard requirements through the use of a checklist. Documentation is requested and reviewed to determine if what is provided satisfies the item listed on the checklist, which correlate directly to the requirements of the standard. ISO/IEC 17025 covers the requirements for both testing and calibration laboratories. Due to the wide range of testing laboratories, the standard cannot and should not be overly specific on how a laboratory would meet defined requirements. The objective of any laboratory seeking accreditation is to demonstrate they have an established QMS. Equally as critical, for product testing laboratories in particular, is the objective to establish GxP, “good practices”, to ensure test methods and laboratory operations verify product safety and quality. ISO/IEC 17025 provides the baseline, but compliance to Good Laboratory Practice (GLP), Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and even Good Safety Practices (GSP) are essential for cannabis testing laboratories to be successful and demonstrate testing data is reliable and accurate.

Where ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation falls short

Adherence to ISO/IEC 17025, and subsequently receiving accreditation, is an excellent way to ensure laboratories have put forth the effort to establish a QMS. However, for product testing laboratories specifically there are a number of “gaps” within the standard and the accreditation process. Below are my “Top Five” that I believe have the greatest impact on a cannabis testing laboratory’s ability to maintain compliance and consistency, verify data integrity and robust testing methods, and ensure the safety of laboratory personnel.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)

The understanding of what qualifies as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is often misunderstood by cannabis operators. An SOP is a stand-alone set of step-by-step instructions which allow workers to consistently carry out routine operations, and documented training on SOPs confirms an employee’s comprehension of their job tasks. Although not required per the current version of the standard, many laboratories develop a Quality Manual (QM). A QM defines an organization’s Quality Policy, Quality Objectives, QMS, and the procedures which support the QMS. It is not an uncommon practice for cannabis laboratories to use the QM as the repository for their “procedures”. The intent of a QM is to be a high-level operations policy document. The QM is NOT a step-by-step procedure, or at least it shouldn’t be.

Test Method Transfer (TMT)

Some cannabis laboratories develop their own test methods, but a common practice in many cannabis laboratories is to purchase equipment from vendors that provide “validated” test methods. Laboratories purchase equipment, install equipment with pre-loaded methods and jump in to testing products. There is no formal verification (what is known as a Test Method Transfer (TMT)) by the laboratory to demonstrate the method validated by the vendor on the vendor’s equipment, with the vendor’s technicians, using the vendor’s standards and reagents, performs the same and generates “valid” results when the method is run on their own equipment, with their own technician(s), and using their own standards and reagents. When discrepancies or variances in results are identified (most likely the result of an inadequate TMT), changes to test methods may be made with no justification or data to support the change, and the subsequent method becomes the “validated” method used for final release testing. The standard requires the laboratory to utilize “validated” methods. Most laboratories can easily provide documentation to meet that requirement. However, there is no verification that the process of either validating in house methods or transferring methods from a vendor were developed using any standard guidance on test method validation to confirm the methods are accurate, precise, robust and repeatable. Subsequently, there is no requirement to define, document, and justify changes to test methods. These requirements are mentioned in ISO/IEC 17025, Step 7.2.2, Validation of Methods, but they are written as “Notes” and not as actual necessities for accreditation acceptance.

Change Control

The standard speaks to identifying “changes” in documents and authorizing changes made to software but the standard, and subsequently the accreditation criteria, is loose on the requirement of a Change Control process and procedure as part of the QMS. The laboratory is not offered any clear instruction of how to manage change control, including specific requirements for making changes to procedures and/or test methods, documented justification of those changes, and the identification of individuals authorized to approve those changes.

Out of Specification (OOS) results

The documentation and management of Out of Specification (OOS) testing results is perhaps one of the most critical liabilities witnessed for cannabis testing laboratories. The standard requires a procedure for “Nonconforming Work”. There is no mention of requiring a root cause investigation, no requirement to document actions, and most importantly there is no requirement to document a retesting plan, including justification for retesting. “Testing into compliance”, as this practice is commonly referred to, was ruled unacceptable by the FDA in the highly publicized 1993 court case United States vs. Barr Laboratories.

Laboratory Safety

FDAlogoSafe laboratory practices are not addressed at all in ISO/IEC 17025. A “Culture of Safety” (as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)) is lacking in most cannabis laboratories. Policies and procedures should be established to define required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the safe handling of hazardous materials and spills, and a posted evacuation plan in the event of an emergency. Gas chromatography (GC) is a common test method utilized in an analytical testing laboratory. GC instrumentation requires the use of compressed gas which is commonly supplied in gas cylinders. Proper handling, operation and storage of gas cylinders must be defined. A Preventative Maintenance (PM) schedule should be established for eye wash stations, safety showers and fire extinguishers. Finally, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) should be printed and maintained as reference for laboratory personnel.

ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation provides an added level of trust, respect and confidence in the eyes of regulators and consumers. However, the current process of accreditation misses the mark on the establishment of GxP, “good practices” into laboratory operations. Based on my experience, there has been some leniency given to cannabis testing laboratories seeking accreditation as they are “new” to standards implementation. In my opinion, this is doing cannabis testing laboratories a disservice and setting them up for failure on future accreditations and potential regulatory inspections. It is essential to provide cannabis testing laboratory owners and operators the proper guidance from the beginning and hold them up to the same rigor and scrutiny as other consumer product testing laboratories. Setting the precedence up front drives uniformity, compliance and standardization into an industry that desperately needs it.


References:

  1. 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 211- Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals.
  2. 21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 117;Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food: Subpart B-Processes and Controls.
  3. ICH Q7 Good Manufacturing Practice Guidance for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients; Laboratory Controls.
  4. World Health Organization (WHO).
  5. International Building Code (IBC).
  6. International Fire Code (IFC).
  7. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
  8. Occupational Safety and Health Administration; Laboratories.
  9. ASTM D8244-21; Standard Guide for Analytical Operations Supporting the Cannabis/Hemp Industry.
  10. org; ISO/IEC 17025.