By Roger Brown
Choosing the right third-party hemp and cannabis laboratory is a critical decision. Trustworthy laboratories can be a long-term partner that supports brands’ innovations and product safety goals. On the other hand, the wrong laboratory can put brands at risk, such as with incorrect potency results or failing to identify contaminants. Qualified laboratories are also essential to ensure brands stay compliant with regulatory mandates, a vital factor in the ever-evolving industry.
So, how can hemp and cannabis operators confidently secure accurate and compliant laboratory testing? Growers, manufacturers, processors, and brands must ask these six key questions.
1. Question: “Do qualified scientists run your laboratory?”
Competent third-party laboratories employ a roster of qualified scientists with extensive experience in sample extraction, techniques, automation, and throughput. Skilled staff members should have a Ph.D. or B.S. in analytical chemistry, along with previous cannabis safety testing experience. Qualified scientists have experience working across research and development fields at domestic and international organizations, such as diagnostic, environmental, pharmaceutical R&D, and clinical.
2. Question: “Does your laboratory provide user-friendly Certificates of Analysis to prove the test results?”
Inaccurate hemp and cannabis product labels are a huge industry problem. A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that labels often miscalculate potency. In fact, several hemp products contained illicit levels of THC, high enough to produce unwanted psychoactive effects. Accurately reporting cannabinoid content is critical for consumer safety–and it all starts with accurate laboratory results.
Accurate results are also critical to complying with state and federal laws. For example, the USDA requires growers to test hemp lots for THC potency before they can sell to processors. State hemp programs often require contaminant testing as well. Even more stringent, medical cannabis regulations mandate significant quality testing along with Certificates of Analysis (COAs) to prove the results.
That’s why hemp and cannabis brands must look for a testing facility that publishes reliable, verifiable results in easy-to-read COAs. COAs are verified documents that detail the testing laboratory, the brand, and the potency results. COAs also confirm quantifying contaminant levels, such as heavy metals, pesticides, molds, and bacteria.
The COA should be simple to understand, with key results featured at the top of the document. COAs should also be available in multiple languages, so consumers of all backgrounds can educate themselves on the product in question.
3. Question: “Is your laboratory DEA-certified to handle federally illicit compounds?”
Effective January 1, 2022, the USDA requires hemp cultivators to send samples to DEA-registered labs, and most states have followed suit. Regardless of the mandate, DEA certification is essential because it means laboratories have met stringent testing and equipment standards. It also means:
- Higher levels of quality and safety:To be DEA-certified, laboratories must prove they’ve never been convicted of a crime, had a revoked or suspended license, or were involved with a federally convicted partner. In addition, they must meet higher safety standards to gain customer trust and elevate the hemp industry’s reputation.
- Understanding of controlled substances:Cannabis is still listed on the Controlled Substances Act, meaning laboratories must be able to comply with federal testing and handling requirements.
- Support of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP):DEA-designated laboratories typically adhere to the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) to minimize changes in product contamination and testing errors.
4. Question: “How can you be sure your results are accurate?”
Any laboratory can claim precision, but those operating in isolation can’t be sure. Only laboratories that independent oversight organizations have evaluated can make that assertion. For example, ISO/IEC 17025 compliance demonstrates that objective competence and consistency. By meeting ISO 17025 requirements, laboratories prove that their testing process, equipment, and results align with national standards. Additionally, it shows they’ve passed regular follow-up assessments.
Emerald Scientific is another independent body that keeps cannabis laboratories accountable for accuracy, reliability, and consistency. Every year, the organization awards laboratories that prove their ability to accurately test categories like edibles, beverages, chocolates, and flower. Laboratories with multiple Emerald Badges show that they’re elevating industry standards.
5. Question: “Can your laboratory perform PK studies?”
Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) standards set a framework for laboratories to perform consistent diagnostic testing on humans. CLIA certification means laboratories can work with cannabis brands and researchers on pharmacokinetics (PK) studies.
APK study involves taking blood samples from study participants to determine how the body handles a particular compound, like a THC analog. Pharmacokinetics provides essential data on the behavior of molecules within organisms, giving scientists the tools they need to design cannabis-based clinical trials and optimized medicines. Laboratories that can perform PK tests are critical assets for researchers looking to develop cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.
6. Question: “Can your laboratory test for shelf life and stability?
Shelf life refers to how long a product remains stable at the recommended storage conditions. Brands need to know this information so they can educate customers about how best to preserve their products. Understanding shelf life and stability is critical because hemp and cannabis degrade over time. For example:
- Cannabinoids (like THC and CBD) and terpenes can decrease or increase in concentration depending on storage conditions, changing the product’s overall effects.
- Packaging can degrade or contaminate a product over time, such as exposure to humidity and moisture that can lead to mold and mildew.
Shelf life and stability tests aren’t federally-mandated, and not every lab provides the service, but they’re still an essential step for responsible cannabis brands to take. That’s because shelf life analyses provide valuable consumer information like temperature and light storage recommendations along with a “best by” date.
7. Question: “Does your laboratory comply with the strictest state testing requirements?
Most hemp brands today don’t want to sell their products in just one state. They want to expand across the country. However, selling in various regions means products must comply with every state’s testing requirements.
Most regions only demand THC potency testing for industrial hemp biomass, but a growing number of states, like New York and Colorado, go beyond minimum federal standards to require that brands test for up to 18 cannabinoids, 105 pesticides, 55 residual solvents and a plethora of microbiological contaminants. Brands that want to sell high-quality, compliant products in these areas and across the country must look for a laboratory with a comprehensive national hemp testing panel that meticulously adheres to nuanced laws.
Additionally, top laboratories should be able to demonstrate capabilities that go beyond even the strictest compliance standards. For instance, terpene content, moisture and water sensitivity analyses, and shelf-life testing are not typically required. However, labs that can accurately quantify these analytes can help brands improve their marketing efforts and product quality.
The bottom line
As the hemp industry expands, supply chain operators can expect to see more stringent laws and higher quality standards. That’s why it’s crucial to stay ahead of legal requirements and safety measures by partnering with a qualified laboratory with proven industry expertise. Brands must be discerning in their search, only choosing labs that employ quality scientists, user-friendly COAs, and have the certifications to prove accurate and reliable results.