Part 1: The Vital Role of Proficiency Testing in the Cannabis Industry

by Kirsten Blake, Emerald Scientific

We’ve Come A Long Way

In today’s cannabis quality assurance testing facilities we see multimillion-dollar laboratories outfitted with full suites of instrumentation, often in replicate. Manufacturers and suppliers are developing methods and SOPs to support quality science within the industry. However, this hasn’t always been the case, in the early days of testing there were labs with little more than a gas chromatograph in a basement or closet – you know who you are! – and there were those utilizing simple thin layer chromatography – Don’t judge! These were the chemists that pushed their instrumentation to the limits and developed their own methods and SOPs as most traditional suppliers and equipment manufacturers would not support anything used in the cannabis space. These were our industry’s pioneers, and some are still at it. They have been learning, improving, and teaching all of us while the scope, complexity, and motivations behind testing continue to evolve immensely.

Prior to 2014, few analytical labs had ever performed a cannabis proficiency test (PT). With little to no regulation of cannabis products, testing was primarily focused on THC content as a means to establish the product’s potential potency and value. At this time in the cannabis testing industry, there were several “bad actors” participating and providing false quality reports either by choice or they unknowingly lacked the skills required to generate accurate values for their analysis. Some were even “dry-labbing,” which entails providing results without ever running the sample. It is noteworthy to mention that during this time there was a lab organization on the west coast conducting regular “round robin” studies in an effort to improve the testing industry. These were the first proponents of formal proficiency testing in the cannabis space.

Cannabis quality assurance testing has come a long way in a short time. While potency is still a primary focus, more and more states are requiring robust compliance programs that focus on consumer safety. Many of these programs now require annual or biannual proficiency testing and/or ISO 17025 laboratory accreditation for quality assurance testing facilities. It’s important to note that ISO 17025 also requires a laboratory to take annual PTs in each area of analytics within the scope for which they are applying.

Cannabis quality assurance testing has come a long way in a short time. While potency is still a primary focus, more and more states are requiring robust compliance programs that focus on consumer safety.

Why Proficiency Tests?

Proficiency testing plays an important role in any testing facility’s quality management program. These tests are essential to verifying the effectiveness and accuracy of a laboratory’s analytical procedures. They are also invaluable to individual analysts who seek to improve the accuracy of their tests by identifying specific areas where they can improve. The data gathered can be used to help identify trends both within a facility and throughout the industry. Proficiency tests are standard in many other areas of analytics such as food, pharmaceutical, petrochemical, and environmental testing.

In the cannabis sector, proficiency testing has become an essential tool for measuring abilities and overall competency for third party and in-house testing facilities. These “best practices” help reduce the instance of product liability and seek to ensure consumer safety. They’ve also led us to a new trend in participation from in-house testing labs as they strive for analytics that are on par with third party testing labs, who confirm products are compliant with regulations.

Labs That Participate Consistently Show Improved Performance

The employment of consistent PT participation will lead to improved consumer confidence in cannabis testing labs and the quality of their work. It is not uncommon to hear other parts of the cannabis industry bashing the quality and consistency of lab results. Emerald Scientific has years of data indicating that the laboratories have consistently improved their performance while taking on more challenging and difficult matrices with expanded analytes to quantify.

These tests provide essential data for regulating agencies to consider in their decision-making processes. Programs like The Emerald Test™ that collect inter-laboratory comparison data are critical for understanding how the industry is performing as a group, and to identify challenging or problematic analytes. Information is also collected tracking instrumentation and method performance. This information can be helpful to identify areas for improvement industry wide.

Programs like The Emerald Test™ that collect inter-laboratory comparison data are critical for understanding how the industry is performing as a group, and to identify challenging or problematic analytes.

For example, past Emerald Test™ data indicates that arsenic is the one heavy metals element that labs most often fail to accurately quantify and report. Careful data analysis may be able to identify correlations involving methods, equipment or other influences. This information can be leveraged by other parties such equipment manufacturers, or other suppliers to deliver relevant solutions.

The Emerald Test and Other PT Programs 

There are different options for proficiency testing programs available. A few state-run programs do exist that offer “round robins.” While not officially PTs, these can provide useful data if executed properly. Here at Emerald Scientific we provide a diverse selection of relevant PTs for the industry from multiple ISO 17043 accredited PT manufacturers. The test options can be in the form of quick turn PTs that are available year-round as well as internal/practice tests that can play an important role in day-to-day internal QC operations or can be simply for practice.

Another option is to enroll in our biannual PT study, The Emerald Test™ ILC/PT program. Launched in 2014, this was the first national cannabis interlaboratory comparison proficiency testing program that now serves labs across North America and in 27 countries across the globe. For the 2020 Fall round we are offering 25 PTs that  come with the chance to be awarded an Emerald Badge. While participation is anonymous, you’ll find that hundreds of labs proudly display awarded Emerald Badges on their websites, social channels, and marketing materials as it has quickly become a sign of consumer confidence and continual growth in quality assurance testing capabilities. 

While participation is anonymous, you’ll find that hundreds of labs proudly display awarded Emerald Badges on their websites, social channels, and marketing materials as it has quickly become a sign of consumer confidence and continual growth in quality assurance testing capabilities. 

Are you ready to take the Emerald Test challenge? Contact us today at sales@emeraldscientific.com or at 877-567-3598, we’ll walk you through the enrollment process and help you determine which PTs will best meet your lab’s needs. Note that the 2020 Fall Open Enrollment period closed on September 3, 2020 and the 2021 Spring Round will be announced soon. 

Kirsten is the vice president of Emerald Scientific.

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