The CBD market as it stands today is often described as a “Wild West.” With FDA withholding any guidance on CBD short of saying that CBD isn’t allowed in foods and supplements, the market has churned out a large number of CBD companies, big and small, launching products whose quality can run the gamut from good to questionable. There is a great need for quality control in the mushrooming CBD and hemp products market that has so far outpaced regulatory oversight, and thus numerous certification programs have sprung up to offer a way for responsible companies to differentiate themselves.
The U.S. Hemp Authority is one program that began stamping its seal on certified hemp products early in 2019. This summer, contract research organization Nutrasource (Canada) recruited U.S. testing laboratory Alkemist Labs (Garden Grove, CA) to be the official testing lab for its new International Cannabinoid Analysis Program (ICAP), a third-party certification program that tests THC content in ingredients and finished products. And this fall, one the most established certification companies of them all, NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI), announced plans to add CBD and hemp testing, auditing, and certification services to its offerings.
Will established certification companies and laboratories now starting to offer services for this market boost quality control in the industry and help everyone better navigate this hazy space? We spoke to several companies at October’s SupplySide West trade show about the possibilities.
David Trosin, NSF International's newly annointed general manager of health sciences, said NSF ultimately decided to begin offering hemp testing and certification services because of the great need it saw in the marketplace.
“We’re a really conservative organization, so we went into this with a great deal of thought and board approval,” he said at SupplySide West. “Our mission is to protect and improve public health, and we saw a tremendous need. We would go to events and survey the landscape of this whole market, where you have everything from the most sophisticated companies with Wall Street investment to companies who frankly have no idea of quality standards. And that of course leads to this massive variety of product quality as well. And so to go back in the spirit of our mission, we felt that we couldn’t sit on the sideline, that we had to get involved as a thought leader and work with industry to make sure that good product, good processes, were being put in place to protect the consumers and also to protect the industry…We need to make sure that they’re following the highest standards possible and giving them the tools to do so.”
Eventually, NSF will offer testing and certification services for both hemp ingredients and finished products. Currently, NSF is only actively operating the testing arm of its hemp program, including testing to ensure that ingredients and products are within the 0.3%-or-below threshold for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content required for legal hemp by the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, which states that hemp products may not contain more than 0.3% THC by dry weight.
As Nutritional Outlook has reported, NSF is waiting to open up its certification services until it is able to establish what it believes is a safe usage level for hemp extracts. Trosin said NSF hopes to have that safety work, and subsequent review by its health advisory board, completed very soon.
NSF is also only offering testing and certification services for broad-spectrum hemp extracts, and not CBD isolates, which Trosin said are “still considered a drug, so we can’t certify it as a dietary supplement. Once FDA comes out with a stance on that and says it’s an acceptable dietary ingredient, we’ll revisit, but we can’t get out ahead of that.” He said NSF is limiting its scope to products containing no more than 70% CBD content, “because otherwise it starts to flirt with isolate.”
While testing for THC content is well within NSF’s analytical wheelhouse, certification is not so simple, Trosin said. “The certification side is much more complex because you have to look and make sure there’s a safe upper limit, because it’s not just about certifying that the content is there; it’s that it’s there at a safe level. So when we certify a product, we’re first verifying the cGMP"—current good manufacturing practices—"atmosphere in which it was produced, so before product can be submitted for certification, it has to be produced in an NSF cGMP–registered facility. And then it comes in for testing and the label is reviewed. It goes for a complete lineup of contaminant testing, including heavy metals and microbes, aflatoxins, in this case pesticides, and then we do identification testing.”
“We’re currently doing test-only work on the products because that’s different than certification," he continued. "So when we test, it’s just a yes/no. It’s a test report.”
Is it difficult to test hemp products for THC content? The testing labs we spoke to said that it is not much different than testing for any of the other constituents that analytical labs are asked to check for.
“It’s just one more plant,” said Alkemist Labs’ CEO Elan Sudberg at SupplySide West. “We test almost 2000 of them, and it’s just one more. I know it’s an exciting category and it’s gotten a lot of attention, but to me, it’s just one more plant and one more analyte.” (Alkemist actually tests to a stricter limit than U.S. regulations, instead testing to the 0.2%-or-less THC threshold set by the European Union’s agricultural cannabis policies.)
Testing finished products is more complicated, he said. “Finished products test differently than ingredients, so if [we’re testing] a bunch of complicated gummies, it might be slower.”
He elaborated: “It can be done. It just takes more development. It takes more time to essentially test a method on it and test for robustness and repeatability.”
Trosin said that THC testing is also not new to NSF. For instance, NSF already tests products for THC content (or lack of THC) as part of its longtime NSF Certified for Sport program, which ensures that products used by athletes are devoid of banned substances.
“We’ve been doing this type of testing for a long time,” Trosin said. “This is just another ingredient. It takes some different considerations than other ingredients—but then there are a number of things, like protein, that take special consideration. So we are very good, and our expertise runs very deep in terms of developing the methods, and we’ve been testing for THC for a long time. It’s part of our other programs.”
Sudberg said Alkemist Labs decided to get into this market specifically at this time for good reason. “Our strategy was to wait for our industry, the customers we already have, to start incorporating these ingredients, and then they’ll come to us, their lab that they’ve always used, rather than go out hunting,” he said. “I was hoping to work with companies that are established and that have good products, so those are the ones that are coming to us and saying, ‘We’re ready to launch our hemp product.’”