Even though hemp is federally legal, the FDA isn’t exactly keeping a keen eye on the robust market for its derivatives. Right now, there isn’t a single federal or state entity running regular lab tests on cannabis products — meaning quality control is up to the companies themselves. This self-regulation has contributed to a “Wild West” setting where rules are arbitrary so long as profits are good. So how do you tell if your hemp products are legitimate and safe? There’s no singular answer, but understanding what a Certificate of Analysis (COA) is can go a long way.
Essentially, a Certificate of Analysis comes from third-party labs who test to make sure a product meets its specifications and contains no harmful substances. When it comes to cannabis, COA’s test cannabinoid potency and terpene profiles on top of making sure that pesticides, mold, bacteria, heavy metals, residual solvents, and mycotoxins are not present.
Contamination can be a regular problem with all cannabis. As a bioaccumulator cannabis absorbs materials from its surroundings (think fish and mercury). The rate at which cannabis soaks up its environment is so exceptional that it’s actually being used to rehabilitate the soil in Chernobyl. So, given cannabis’ sponginess, it is essential to know the source of your hemp on a scientific level. COA’s are our best way of getting that information.
Even more, COA’s can be used to determine if a company’s label actually matches the contents of the product to ensure you get what you paid for. In 2017, JAMA published a study revealing that 69% of CBD products sold online were mislabeled. This means the amount of CBD claimed on the packaging is not actually in the product when tested in a properly calibrated laboratory.
Not all COA’s are created equal. It’s not unheard of for questionable labs to offer desirable reports for a fee. Some labs even share the same address as the product’s manufacturer. The easiest way to know whether or not a third-party lab is legitimate is through ISO certification.
ISO (International Organization for Standardization) is the world's largest developer of voluntary international standards. Essentially, ISO sets the rules for world trade by setting common guidelines between countries. ISO certifications assure that products are safe, reliable, and of good quality. There are many types of ISO certifications, depending on the industry and its particular function. In the hemp industry's case, an ISO-17025 certification ensures proper protocols are in place to ensure accurate cannabinoid testing. A COA from a from an ISO affiliated lab should be a priority when choosing hemp products.
The Certificates of Analysis of cannabis products will reveal the cannabinoid profile. As customers experiment with different consistently manufactured products and experience the effects when ingested, each person will be able determine which cannabinoids and their prevalence related to other cannabinoids gives the greatest benefit. Each consumer should only purchase products from manufacturers listing the amount of cannabinoids present as reported by an ISO-certified lab.
As of now, the burden lands on the consumer to decipher good products from potentially dangerous ones. While there are companies operating under high standards, the FDA has not done much to deter bad actors. And until this the hemp industry gets a clear set of rules, choose companies with readily available, ISO-compliant COA’s.