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How Strategic Cannabis Testing and Analysis Data Management Can Help Transform Product Quality and Compliance

By Toby Astill

Published: May 12, 2022   

Image credit: PerkinElmer

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Cannabis labs today experience no lack of challenges. From high staff turnover or shortages to geographically diverse regulations and labeling inaccuracies, the industry is constantly on its toes to keep up with demand for innovative products and increasing sample complexities and volumes.

However, the thread running through each of these areas is the same one that can open opportunities to help tackle industry pain points: data.

Creativity and the unique growth mindset of the cannabis industry has led to staggering product innovation and advancements within how technologies are leveraged. This same mindset has been instrumental in revolutionizing testing and analytical practices and is now leading the charge in data management.

If cannabis labs can quickly, completely, and accurately capture and leverage their testing and analysis data, they can make more timely and effective data-driven decisions. This can also reduce human error, get new staffers up to speed more quickly, and ensure increased data traceability and integrity. All this points towards delivering more innovative and compliant products that hit the mark for regulators and consumers alike.

But where to start? When thinking about tapping into the power of testing and analysis data, there are some key things to keep in mind.

Defining data management and thinking beyond the cannabis industry

Whether a cannabis or hemp lab is processing 10 or 10,000 samples a day, standardized data management can benefit every step of the workflow. At a minimum, data management refers to how results are recorded and stored. However, other factors such as accurate data capture also play an important role. From plant to beverage, by looking at all of these areas holistically, data analysis, results reporting, and effective R&D collaboration can be enhanced.

It’s also helpful to look toward more traditional industries, such as food and pharmaceuticals, where data management has always been a top priority. In the same way that it’s vital to ensure that medicines going to patients or food to our tables is accurately tested and labeled, cannabis and hemp products require careful tracking.

The medicinal cannabis market has already seen standardization. Furthermore, across Canada, all cannabis labs (recreational and medicinal) must be good manufacturing process (GMP) compliant. With more and more companies using medical trials for their pharmaceutical-grade products, the necessity to comply with the FDA’s structured and stringent requirements has risen. Although most labs already meet ISO-17205 or GMP guidelines, these only specify the steps needed to be taken in order for a product to be approved, and not which instruments, systems, or technology should be used. 

Four key ways to enhance your cannabis data management

When analyzing cannabis, there are up to 15 different points along the workflow – from sample preparation to final quality control – where capturing and passing along accurate data is critical to the final result. Even just one error can become a major headache for labs as it’s compounded throughout the value chain. Therefore, accurate recording and movement of data is critical for reducing errors. In order to ensure better data management and integrity, below are four solutions and technologies for consideration to improve how you handle data in the lab:

1. Higher throughput and more data: how automated workflows can help

To handle the increased volume of samples that may enter an in-house or contract lab on any given day, many cannabis scientists are turning towards automation technologies. These solutions, comprised of instruments with robotic capabilities and software, can help alleviate many issues for cannabis and hemp labs in terms of throughput. They can also generate better data at a faster rate. Automation touchpoints can span across customer management; order entry, sample prep and analysis, post-analysis review and test result verification, sample reporting and certificate of analysis (COA) generation – they can all be integrated in one data management package.

Dozens of centrifuge tubes in a lab automation machine.

Cannabis automation. Image credit: PerkinElmer.

Today, cannabis and hemp labs are heavily reliant on manual manipulation of samples, the use of multiple reagents, and the dedication of several staff scientists. Implementing automation technology improves sample turnaround time, enhances data accuracy, increases overall personnel efficiency, and supports easier compliance by providing the tools that remove the need for human intervention. Additionally, the intuitive software solutions that are included mean tasks such as inventory management can also be taken care of. This includes monitoring the number of samples a lab needs to process in a day and keeping track of the volume and expiry dates of reagents needed for that workflow. By letting software handle these more menial tasks, technical staff have more time to dedicate to developing more innovative products.

2. Growing as an industry: from spreadsheet to digital data capture

Many labs currently face challenges moving hundreds of samples (if not more) a month across the multiple steps. In a budding industry such as the cannabis and hemp sector, there’s still a huge range of data management techniques in play, from the cumbersome use of noting down values with pen and paper, to more elegant solutions such as digital balances that can send data values directly to the cloud. With pen and paper, there is no guarantee of data integrity, the incidence of unforced error is much higher, and there’s an increased risk of data being altered along the way. However, electronically controlled formats often come with built-in software privileges that only allow some people to access and edit the data. Not only does this ensure the integrity and accurate transfer of better data in a more time-efficient manner, but it also negates the risk of intentional data manipulation.

As many staff don’t have the programming or IT knowledge to move data efficiently, the implementation of standardized data management protocols in contract testing labs across the industry would help assure initial data accuracy and reduce unknown, compounded errors. More defined data management guidelines could empower cannabis scientists to confidently make data-driven decisions. Software tailored for each step along the workflow means that the burden of dealing with complex data input and analysis is removed. Furthermore, knowing test results have not been altered by accidental or deliberate changes, labs can also enhance efficiency, costs, and resource leverage while reducing waste – ultimately delivering higher quality products to consumers.

3. Needle in a haystack: data visualization to improve efficiency

Data visualization is becoming pivotal to the analytical side of cannabis testing. With the growing number of cannabis-infused products and varying matrices, scientists can now generate an abundance of data from just a single sample. To help scientists pick out the most important data points and assess how they relate to one another, graphs and pie charts can be used to paint a visual picture of the data. This not only benefits customers but also consumers. For example, there are programs that have been developed to visually display the cannabinoids and terpenes present in a sample. This allows producers to create more diverse and nuanced products and for consumers to, in turn, be able to choose more personalized product options and experiences.

Lab stakeholders are also empowered not only by the volume of analytical data they can obtain from analyzes, but by ease of interpretation. Standardization in this area would ensure all labs follow the appropriate analysis and visual reporting along the workflow, implementing an effective overall approach to product safety and quality control while also improving risk management.

4. Thinking outside the box: looking at all areas of the workflow

An old saying goes: a workperson is only as good as their tools. In a similar vein, for cannabis labs, analytical accuracy can only be as good as the instruments being used. Although data recording and analysis can be improved by implementing the practices and solutions discussed above, individual value accuracy is still reliant on the use of sensitive, high-quality instruments. Furthermore, standardization in other areas of the workflow, such as the use of CRM-certified standard reagents, can improve data integrity and management. 

When cannabis and hemp labs take a moment to zoom out and examine the wider picture of their workflow, they can better identify the areas in which errors could occur in relation to data management – similar to how a risk assessment would be carried out when handling a certain reagent. After identifying potential sources of error, labs can ensure they have the most up-to-date instruments and standardized, in-date solvents to carry out effective sample analysis. This helps reduce the incidence of error outside of data handling to continually ensure integrity of data and confidence in results.

The revolution will be digitalized

As the industry continues to innovate, evolve, and grow, cannabis labs must work towards building new methods, best practices, and more uniform quality and safety standards. Increasingly educated and diligent consumers want to be assured that the products they reach for are what they claim to be. Cannabis labs and producers, tasked with quality assurance and regulatory compliance testing, are therefore entrusted to ensure the quality and safety of their products. Rigorous and smart data management can help meet consumer and regulatory pressures.

In cannabis, data are incredibly important and pivotal. Small changes can alter whether a product is fit for market or not and there may be millions of dollars riding on individual samples. When labs can demonstrate data accuracy and integrity, it provides them with a significant advantage in the industry and an easier path to compliance. Strategic data management provides labs with the tools they need to reach product integrity and support traceability. As such, the practice is a vital framework for labs and their business.

With the implementation of automated technology and a review of data management procedures, more accurate data are recorded and move through the workflow. The right approach towards laboratory automation and digitization is unique for every lab and driven by the requirements of the business. For cannabis labs looking to expand into new areas of application or digging deeper into their core strengths, a process of better managing data is the tool to empower their business.

For more information on testing automation and data management in today’s cannabis labs please visit: Automated Solutions for Cannabis & Hemp Testing Laboratories | PerkinElmer

Toby Astill

Global Market Manager for Cannabis and Hemp at PerkinElmer, Inc.

Toby has a PhD in Chemistry and has spent the last 11 years working for PerkinElmer and driving its global cannabis and hemp business through a variety of initiatives, including market and industry research, collaboration agreements with customers, application content development, and field marketing initiatives. He has written for Analytical Cannabis since 2019.


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