Why Canadian Cannabis Labs Are Seeking Accreditation: A Q&A With Andrew Adams
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As the international cannabis industry keeps evolving and strengthening, the cannabis testing sector in turn is continually looking to find new ways to push itself to ensure that consumer safety is always thoroughly protected.
In Canada, despite it not being a legal requirement, some cannabis testing laboratories are now seeking formal laboratory accreditations as a way to demonstrate their competency and commitment to proper testing procedure and high-quality standards.
To hear more about laboratory accreditation and the current environment for testing in Canada, Analytical Cannabis spoke with Andrew Adams, president and CEO of the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation, CALA.
Alexander Beadle (AB): For the unfamiliar, would you mind giving a quick overview of what CALA is and the work that you do?
Andrew Adams (AA): CALA is a not-for-profit accreditation body that accredits laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025, the general requirements for testing and calibration laboratories.
CALA itself is part of APAC, the Asia Pacific Accreditation Cooperation, and also ILAC, the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation. They come in and make sure that CALA as an accreditation body is operating according to ISO/IEC 17011 and makes sure we're operating according to the standard. Then we make sure the laboratories are operating according to their standard, the ISO/IEC 17025. We also offer training on standard quality assurance related topics as well.
AB: In terms of cannabis testing and accreditation, have you noticed any significant or interesting trends developing in recent years?
AA: We have seen some growth in interest from cannabis laboratories in getting accredited. Unfortunately, in my opinion, you are not federally required to be accredited to ISO/IEC 17025 to test cannabis or cannabis products in Canada right now. But, in spite of that, we have a small number of labs that have shown an interest in seeking accreditation, and are accredited by us to that standard. Since the legalization federally, there has been increased interest in cannabis accreditation. Obviously, no one was interested before it was legal, but I think there's been a growing awareness that some sort of oversight like this is required.
There have been a few problems generally with testing in Canada and the response has been, by Health Canada primarily, to require mandatory testing and things like that. I think a lot of the problems we're seeing in cannabis could be addressed by requiring accreditation. That's not where the government is at the moment, but CALA is certainly encouraging that and making sure that the government does consider that.
AB: Could you maybe expand a little bit more on those problems that you mention there?
AA: I think one of the major problems that received a lot of coverage was pesticide residues. Health Canada found a problem with some pesticides that were being used by some producers, and their response to that was to require mandatory pesticide testing before anything was released. Another concern is a lack of confidence in analytical results. There's certainly some questions that are being raised about how much you can trust what is on the label of some of these products.
I think a lot of concerns like these would be addressed if people knew laboratories were accredited, because then you know that they have the technical competence to do the testing, and they're reporting accurate results. It would just clear this up, I think.
AB: This sounds quite similar to recent developments in California. There, an independent group are asking for reform, including on accreditation, out of concern that the current system incentivizes “lab shopping”. Hypothetically, producers can go wherever the test results reflect the product best, but if the analytical procedure isn’t up to standard then that might not necessarily represent the actual content of the product.
AA: And I've heard similar suggestions in Canada as well, that there's, as you put it, “lab shopping” going on. I have to say I have not seen that firsthand, but at some of conferences I have spoken at, talking to people there, they have told me that this is going on, and it is a concern. It's a difficult one. If people have the choice of an accredited lab and a non-accredited lab, cost comes into it, there's a whole lot of considerations.
Mandatory accreditation is in place in many other areas. In Canada, there's only one province that does not currently require environmental testing to be done by accredited laboratories, and they're currently looking at changing their laws. So, if you're doing environmental testing it must be tested in an accredited laboratory. Whereas with cannabis, there's no such requirement.
AB: If things were to move towards mandatory accreditation for cannabis testing, what would that process look like?
AA: When it comes to mandatory accreditation of laboratories for cannabis testing, I don't believe that is on the radar at the moment. I would like to say we're moving towards that, but in all honesty, I can't. Though I would love the federal government to go there.
When it comes to the laboratory side, CALA already does accredit some cannabis laboratories, they have chosen to be accredited because they think it's the right thing to do. Some of these labs are already accredited for other testing work, such as environmental work, so it was just a natural for them to add cannabis onto that scope. Some of them just do cannabis, and they clearly just thought it was the right thing to do to seek accreditation.
In talking to them about it, they're really keen. They think the accreditation really does make a difference to the laboratory’s overall performance. Some labs, of course, see accreditation as an additional cost – and it does cost money, the laboratory does have to do additional work. I've got a lab background myself; I spent a lot of years with the federal government working in laboratories, managing laboratories, and I'm a big believer in lab accreditation and the positive impact it has on laboratories. I think it's worth the cost. Some may question that, but overall, I do think it's worth it.
How easy is it to get accreditation? Clearly, a lab has to have its house in order. If a lab has a good quality management system, they're paying attention to their analytical testing, they're using validated methods, things like that. It shouldn't be a hard job for them to meet the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025.
One of the significant requirements of accreditation is to participate in proficiency testing. This is key because you can have all the documentation you want, you've got a great quality system, but proficiency testing is really where the rubber meets the road. It's where a lab demonstrates that they have the technical competence to do the job. So, for example, last year, CALA ran a proficiency testing program as well – we've since had to separate that off as a separate company – but we ran cannabis proficiency testing for the first time last year, and overall the laboratories did very well. There were some outliers, but overall the results were very good. And that was looking at things like cannabinoids – so, of course, THC, CBD, things that people are interested in – residual solvents, metals, and pesticides. So, proficiency testing is a key aspect for laboratories, it’s a key requirement to demonstrate technical competence.
AB: That’s really positive. What about the other, maybe lesser-known, aspects of accreditation?
AA: Obviously, we're big advocates for accreditation. I think it really adds to the credibility of a laboratory’s data. And that's not to say unaccredited labs can't produce good data – they can – but what assurance do you have?
Another aspect of accreditation is that it is important for international trade as well. One of the drivers for pursuing accreditation like ISO/IEC 17025 is the idea that a product can be tested once and accepted everywhere. We're not at the stage yet where we're getting international trade in cannabis products. But will we get there? I suspect we probably will at some point.
Accreditation is already important for Canada's wine exporters, I've spoken to them and they've told me that ISO accreditation is absolutely critical, or they cannot sell wine into Europe. And we could get to the same stage if we get an international trade in cannabis products, then the accreditation may be something that's required to support international trade.