5 Things to Consider When Choosing a Hemp Certification Program
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5 Things to Consider When Choosing a Hemp Certification Program

Hemp certification programs help consumers make sense of a marketplace, but not all are created equally.

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As hemp emerges from prohibition to a thriving industry, certification programs have been cropping up like weeds. These fill a needed vacuum: With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still refusing to regulate popular hemp-derived cannabinoid products like CBD, retailers, and consumers are left confused and concerned about what’s actually in the items they sell and purchase.

Hemp certification programs help consumers make sense of a marketplace jumbled with products of varying quality by providing some kind of a certification symbol or logo that demonstrates that these producers meet best manufacturing and marketing practices.

But hemp and CBD buyers and sellers should also beware of what’s actually in the certification programs themselves. Indeed, while these programs can help boost consumer trust in the products they're buying, some threaten the integrity of the hemp industry and undermine consumer confidence in hemp products.

 
Weintraub

The good news is that industry-backed and well-established hemp product certification programs do exist—it’s just a matter of weeding through the ones that aren’t worth your time. 

Here are five questions to ask yourself when choosing a hemp certification program.

 

1. What is the validity of the program?

First, consider the validity of the certification program by asking the basic “who, what, when, where, and why.” Certification programs that have come into fruition in the past year or two could be a quick fix attempt to capitalize on the lack of federal regulatory oversight. Still, others are more well-meaning and rigorous but approach their standards strictly from a dietary supplement point of view, with little knowledge of the hemp plant and its innumerous benefits. 

It’s important to look for long-standing certification programs — written for the hemp industry, by the hemp industry —involving stakeholders from across a broad set of disciplines that have developed and implemented rigorous, transparent, and ethical standards for self-regulation. 

 

2. Was the program established for self-regulation or self-interest?

The processes and profits for a hemp certification program should not directly benefit its clients or member investors and instead should focus on increasing the confidence of hemp product consumers and regulators. Take, for example, certification programs that involve a hefty fee for a simple audit report conducted internally by unqualified administrators or invested stakeholders, instead of a comprehensive process performed by a non-affiliated, independent auditor agency.

Without on-site audits or even third-party verification, the seals awarded aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Some certification programs provide very limited oversight – perhaps only limited laboratory testing – and can pose severe conflicts of interest, such as a single specified lab also funding and serving on the board of the certifying organization. 

Look for certifications that require a yearly re-certification and are conducted with on-site, independent audits by non-affiliated authorities.  

 

3. What are the standards set by the program? 

Honest labeling and transparency doesn’t just start and stop at the final product. Certification standards should be comprehensive and cover all aspects of the manufacturing supply chain. Critically, certification audits should show product manufacturing follows cGMP guidance; the product is in compliance with strict federal, state, tribe or local labeling requirements; and product testing is conducted with fit-for-purpose, validated, and standardized testing methods such as those published by FDA, U.S. Pharmacopeia, and AOAC International, and supported by leading regulatory and consumer groups such as the United Natural Product Alliance, American Herbal Products Association, and Council for Responsible Nutrition, just to name a few. 

Some certification programs even extend to hemp farming by demanding cannabinoid ingredients are hemp-derived (no cannabimimetics or synthetically derived cannabinoids can be used in a certified product). In these programs, the country where biomass is grown is also required to be clearly printed on the label. This provides extended product quality and safety assurance — from seed to shelf or farm to factory — while creating a demand for hemp inputs or ingredients derived from crops grown with best farming practices.

 

4. Does the program take other standards and certifications into account? 

Over the last year or so, additional hemp-related certifications aimed at supporting laboratories that complete hemp testing have been announced to increase testing standardization, and therefore make hemp product testing more accurate globally. For example, the well-known analytical standards organization, AOAC International, developed its Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP) to support the need for valid and fit-for-purpose chemical and microbiological analyses for hemp and hemp products. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a physical sciences laboratory and non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, also announced its intention to develop better standardized materials for laboratories, therefore making testing of cannabinoids and other hemp products more accurate. 

These programs help everyone in the industry and are supported by certifications intending to better the entire hemp industry. Keep an eye out for certification programs working alongside independent groups and regulatory agencies to increase the validity of hemp product testing.

 

5. Is the program continuously evolving and improving? 

 As the hemp industry continues to evolve with ever-changing needs and regulations, certification programs must demonstrate a commitment to improvement as well. This requires the certification to have relationships not only within the hemp industry, but also with other industry stakeholders including academics, various regulators, and regulatory bodies. These relationships are the critical groundwork for standardized manufacturing, labeling, and quality requirements. If a certification program is not regularly updating its requirements for certification, it can’t accurately monitor for safety.

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This is a make-or-break time for the hemp industry. Without FDA oversight, state legislatures have constructed a patchwork of conflicting regulatory regimes, causing confusion for manufacturers and consumers. In addition, intoxicating compounds have been flooding the marketplace, such delta-8 THC and other analogues of delta-9 THC. It’s no wonder consumers and retailers are calling out for help in figuring out what products are safe and can be trusted. Certification programs can serve as the urgent answer. Just be sure to look under the hood and ensure the certification program you select has a standard you’d want to set.

Marielle Weintraub, Ph.D. is the president of the U.S. Hemp Authority.