Marijuana experts offer strategies to maintain quality independent of lab testing

Lab testing, Marijuana experts offer strategies to maintain quality independent of lab testing

Cannabis flower is weighed by packaging and processing teams at multistate operator Ayr Wellness. Courtesy Photo

From writing standard operating procedures and vetting raw materials to starting in-house labs and conducting retail audits, cannabis business owners lean on best practices for quality control.

Regulators in state-legal marijuana markets require that cannabis businesses have their products tested by independent and state-accredited laboratories before they’re distributed to retail outlets for sale to consumers.

But there are many actions beyond third-party testing that cultivation, manufacturing and retail executives can take to improve quality control. These measures improve the final product, protect consumers and provide executives with some peace of mind.

Following are eight tactics veteran cannabis executives use to ensure quality control:

1. Use other industries as a guide to create in-house standard operating procedures, or SOPs

“We created our own processes and systems. Because we make edibles, we created our own quality-assurance and quality-control program to ensure that our products are best in class and meet the state-required testing specifications,” said Erin Gore, co-founder and CEO of Garden Society, a cannabis company in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Gore added that the company adopted several best practices from the food-manufacturing industry as well as certifications from standards-development organizations such as ISO and ASTM.

For Brian Kiniry, the Philadelphia-based senior vice president of operations at multistate operator Ayr Wellness, Good Manufacturing Practice, or GMP, is the “baseline.”

“As we look to other industries that a lot of us have come from—food and pharmaceutical—we take those documents and modify them to be more cannabis-related,” Kiniry said.

He added that standards already exist for other consumer goods, such as coffee and lettuce. “A lot of these so-called standards are already there. We’re just doing modifications to standardize it for what’s best for the cannabis plant and what’s best for our customers,” he said.

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2. Vet your suppliers with COAs

Whether you’re a grower, infused product maker or retailer, you must vet the businesses from which you source inputs and raw materials.

One simple way to vet cannabis suppliers is requiring them to present a “certificate of analysis,” or COA, which certifies that raw materials are contaminant-free and contain “what they say,” Gore said.

That’s especially important for product manufacturers that develop their own recipes. “Each of our raw materials has specifications for why we chose that raw material. Whether it’s a sugar level or clarity or flavor or pH, it all goes into formulating the best end product, until we get the desired effect that we want—whether it’s taste, texture, effects, etc.,” Gore said.

Austin Brown, manufacturing manager at High Life Farms, a vertically integrated business in Michigan that is expanding into other states, also requires COAs from cannabis suppliers. In addition, he has a “shipping and receiving team that quality checks” shipments upon arrival to make sure boxes are not damaged, open or otherwise compromised, Brown said.

3. Independently test raw materials for safety

Another important way to ensure the quality of raw materials is to put them through third-party testing before processing.

High Life Farms infuses most of its edibles with THC distillate, and a smaller amount includes live rosin. Before gummies, chocolates or anything else is infused with distillate or rosin, the extracts are sent to third-party labs that check for bacteria, microbials, metals, mold and potency.

“The medication is tested, we get the test results back, then we produce edibles with those medications. Then it’s sent out to those same labs one more time for compliance testing. And they’re testing it again for potency, microbials, metals, mold, yeast, all that good stuff,” Brown explained.

It typically takes three to five days to get results, and in that time, the products are put on a “quality hold,” Brown said. “Our packaging team knows not to touch it, not even put it in containers. As soon as we get those test results back and have that green light, and we can start selling it, it gets packaged and sent out.”

Garden Society, which sources distillate and creates its own from flower purchased from independent farmers, tests both flower and oil at third-party labs before the materials are processed. “We check for potency and contaminants, with regards to heavy metals, pesticides and all of the contaminants that we want to avoid in the marketplace,” Gore said.

The company tests in-house when it can, but there are some tests that are just too expensive for a small business to conduct on its own, Gore said.

One such test is gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, which looks for “analytical contaminants within a microscopic level.” Gore said such machinery usually costs “hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars.”

She said the cost of third-party testing depends on the number of individual batches and the complexity of the tests being done, but generally it’s “anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars, depending on what you’re trying to quantify and how many samples.”

4. Don’t forget the human touch (with gloves)

While many cultivation companies turn to automated sorters and trimmers to handle harvested cannabis, Sonoma Hills Farm in Petaluma, California, prefers humans. It’s not just because of better trimming but also because they can provide a quality-control element that machines can’t.

“They can spot problems like mold or certain particulate matter,” Joyce Cenali, chief operations officer at Sonoma Hills Farm, said of hand-trimmers. “So, hand-trimming and having a good team with experience in this area—and making sure that we’re utilizing a clean and sterile environment and not combining our products with other people’s—is important.”

“There’s a lot of co-packing facilities where you’ll get 10 different grows at one time in the facility,” she noted. This can increase the chances of clean cannabis being contaminated by another company’s tainted product.

5. Create formulas to calculate precision dosing by batch

Potency results are especially important to High Life Farms’ quality control when it comes to calculating dosage. If the potency of a batch is, say, 85% THC, High Life can plug that into a “batch calculator that tells us exactly how much of that medication we need to infuse,” Brown said.

“It’s not super-complicated math formulas, but it definitely helps having an actual calculator and build that stuff out.” Brown clarified that the “calculator” in question is a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet in which employees enter potency, desired dosage and other variables to calculate how much of each raw ingredient should go into the mix.

“For example, our chocolate is melted about 200 pounds at a time. Then we add in our flavoring or oil-based flavorings and let that mix overnight. When we infuse the distillate to medicate it, we say, ‘OK, we have 200 pounds of chocolate, the potency of the distillate is 85%, so we need X amount of distillate to be mixed into that whole batch of chocolate.’ Then the chocolate is dosed, so we can pour it into molds,” Brown explained.

6. In-house testing

Another way to improve quality control is with in-house testing, and industry veterans say setting up an in-house lab is not as difficult or expensive as you might think.

Garden Society does some testing in-house and has dedicated team members who carry out testing using SOPs.

“It’s more establishing the right equipment, the right training, the right SOP and then the right documentation for controlling that lot. So, you have the documentation to say, ‘We tested this lot. It passed within specification.’ You document appropriately, so if there’s ever quality concern, you have the information to properly troubleshoot,” Gore said.

If a business wanted to start an in-house testing program, Gore said a good place to begin would be with pH testing.

“A lot of times, variability in pH leads to instability in products downstream. So we measure the pH of all our input materials. It’s a very simple test in-house but very important to ensure long-term stability,” Gore said.

Equipment for testing pH can range from handheld to desktop size, but it is generally affordable—even for small businesses.

“You can spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what you want to test. You can buy a refractometer and a pH meter for under $500 to get started. It’s very affordable,” Gore said. “Creating the system while you’re still small and early stage is incredibly imperative, because when you scale, it’s easier to replicate and standardize across markets.”

In all, Garden Society spends “hundreds of thousands of dollars per year” on both in-house and outside testing, Gore said.

7. Dedicate staff to quality control

“One of the biggest improvements” High Life Farms has made, according to Brown, is establishing a dedicated quality-control team about 18 months ago. The team currently has seven members.

“Their sole role is … to double-check everyone else’s work. Make sure we’re not missing any warning statements that have to be on products and make sure everyone’s following SOPs for both production and packaging. That’s eliminated 95% of the issues that we were seeing,” Brown said.

“That quality team is our last line of defense. The packaging team has team leads who are also doing walk-arounds while people work on things, just to be sure the correct labels are going on and that people are doing their counts correctly,” Brown said.

Before products get to High Life’s “inventory cage,” where trucks pick up product, they go through the quality team’s station, where boxes are inspected one last time.

“They’re doing random audits on every single box that goes out. They grab a few things out of each box, making sure the right stickers are on and they’re in the right place, that the right information is on and just overall checking for anything,” Brown said.

8. Professional QC development

Another way to help ensure quality is to enroll employees in classes that educate them about quality-control methods. One such course is the ServSafe Food Handler training program. The online course is required in Michigan’s cannabis industry, but Brown “strongly” recommends it for industry employees in every state.

“It’s basic training for all of our employees on how to properly handle food,” Brown said, adding that ServSafe is an accredited certification company.

The program covers basic food-handling hygiene practices, proper clothing and controlling cooking temperatures so end products aren’t compromised.

“All of our employees, even if they’re not working with food, still have to go through it just in case they need to help in other departments.”