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Understanding Your Hemp and Cannabis COAs: How to Interpret Your Certificate of Analysis

ByTrichome Team

December 21, 2020

Reading Time: 6 minutes

At Trichome Analytical, we offer pre-harvest compliance testing for licensed hemp cultivators alongside a suite of R&D and analytical services for hemp products from across the country. We are also capable of providing comprehensive testing services for high-THC cannabis products for licensed operators in our home state of New Jersey when regulations are in place for our lab to participate in the state’s medical and / or adult-use program. 

A key part of our engagement with cultivators, processors or retailers is providing a comprehensive, easy-to-understand Certificate of Analysis (COA) once we’ve finalized testing results. 

These COAs are vital tools in understanding your products, and they also serve a key regulatory compliance purpose for hemp cultivators: As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Interim Final Rule regulating hemp, crops cultivated under a USDA program or approved state program must be verified by a third-party lab to contain less than 0.3% total THC by dry weight within a measure of uncertainty (MU). This information is then communicated to regulatory agencies and the cultivator via a COA. 

COAs can also provide you with detailed information regarding any microbial contamination, pesticide presence, terpene content, cannabinoid potency, mycotoxin analysis, heavy metals, residual solvents and foreign materials.

Components of Your COA

Each page of your COA is split into 3 sections. The header of the page includes all of your information, the sample information including name and lot number, and the laboratory processing information regarding your sample. The body of the COA houses the analytical results for the tests requested, and is what we will dive into. The footer of the COA includes the laboratory approval of the analyses, the licenses the laboratory holds, and footnotes that may include definitions, equations, and disclaimers.

The body of your COA will include the results of any test you requested. Cannabinoid potency is the first to be listed on the certificate with clearly marked percentages of potency for each of 15 cannabinoids (CBDVA, CBDV, CBDA, CBGA, CBG, CBD, THCV, THCVA, CBN, Δ9THC, Δ8THC, CBL, CBC, THCA and CBCA). Total THC, CBG, and CBD is calculated using the known mass conversion factors of the acidic cannabinoids upon decarboxylation into their active forms.

You’ll find clear and detailed information for each additional test you requested below the cannabinoid potency section. For contaminant panels (metals, pesticides, etc.), you may also see a pass/fail results alongside the measured value.

Results are specified under each analysis’s title:

  1. Cannabinoids
  2. Heavy metals
  3. Pesticides
  4. Moisture content
  5. Water activity
  6. Foreign materials screening
  7. Terpenes
  8. Residual solvents
  9. Mycotoxins
  10. Microbial screening 

Depending on analysis and product, your results will be expressed in percentages or parts per million based on weight (or volume, if the sample was in liquid form). For infused products, we provide total mg/serving and/or mg/package.

For most infused products, this is based on the net weight of the product in its ready-for-sale container. For liquid infused products (think tinctures or beverages) that are dosed based on volume, we can report total mg/serving and mg/package if the density of the liquid is provided.

Reading Your Results

AnalyteResult (Mass)LODLOQAction LevelStatus
Compound of interestAmount of compound in the sampleLowest that can be detectedLowest that can be measuredThe level that would be harmfulPass or Fail

Under each analysis you will always see an analyte and a result column.

Analyte: The first column indicates the analyte tested (for example, a specific cannabinoid or pesticide). 

Result/Mass (wt%, dry wt%, mg/g, mg/ml, ug/g, ppm): indicates the measured result of the compound in that row.

For example, if 10.52% is listed in this column for CBDA, the percentage of CBDA in that sample is 10.52%. There may also be a second result column that lists the same result in a different unit, which is dependent on the product type. Take a tincture for example: If the tincture is 10.52% by weight, you would have to weigh out each dose! Instead, we take into account the density of the tincture and report in mg/mL, so you know how many milligrams are in each dose. See below for more explanation on reporting units.

The other columns that are present may include the LOD, LOQ, Action Level or Limit, and Status (Pass/Fail).

LOD: Limit of Detection. This is the lowest possible measurement our instrument can detect. This is highly dependent on the instrument, preparation techniques, and method development.

LOQ: Limit of Quantitation: This is the lowest concentration we can accurately quantitate. It is typically 2-4x above the level of detection.

Results that are above the LOD, but below the LOQ are listed as “<LOQ” because, although the compound is there, we cannot provide an accurate measurement. Results that are below the LOD are reported as ND (not detected).

Action Level / Limit: This is the upper limit acceptable for human consumption of that specific compound.

Typically, these limits are defined by regulating bodies. For the hemp industry, we use high-THC state guidelines as recommended action levels for hemp. Currently (and unfortunately) there are no limits for contaminants in hemp products.

Action levels vary based on product and analyte. Our metals panel covers both toxic and essential metals. Some pesticides are found safe to ingest, but convert into other toxic compounds when heated. Inhaling or ingesting isopropyl alcohol will get you sick, but it’s often used in hand sanitizers and is safe on skin. Similarly, many ingest ethanol (drinking alcohol), but that’s not something you’d want to inhale.

Status (Pass/Fail): If your result measures over the limit for that compound, this column will display “Fail.”

Reporting Units Explained

1% = 10 mg/g = 10,000 ug/g = 10,000 ppm = 10,000,000 ppb

Weight percent: the percentage of the material that contains that compound. It directly correlates to mg/g and ug/g. Dry weight percent is the percentage of the material that contains the specified compound on a dry-weight basis (required for USDA THC compliance).

mg/g: displays the result in total milligrams per gram, and is directly related to weight percent. 1mg/g = 0.1%

ug/g: displays the result in total micrograms per gram, and is directly related to weight percent. This can also be referred to as ppm (parts per million). 1ug/g = 0.0001%

mg/mL: displays the result in total milligrams per milliliter. This is a volumetric result based on the sample density, and used for tinctures and beverages.

mg/unit: displays the results in total milligrams per unit. The unit can be the serving size or package. For example, a brownie weighs 60g, and contains 10mg/g of CBD. Therefore, this sample contains a total of 600mg of CBD per brownie.

CFU/g: colony forming units per gram. In microbial analysis, this is used to estimate the number of viable bacteria or fungal cells in a sample.

Percent Moisture: the amount of moisture remaining in the sample, as determined by the mass loss upon drying.

aw (Water activity): the ratio between the vapor pressure of the tested material and the vapor pressure of water under the same conditions.

Understanding Your COA: Pre-Harvest Hemp Compliance and Total THC

As the Interim Final Rule is currently written, pre-harvest hemp that falls below 0.3% total THC (that is, THCA*0.877 + Δ9THC) on a dry-weight basis is considered hemp and is legal for cultivation, processing and transport across state lines. If the THC content is higher than that, however, the USDA rule states that the crop “must be destroyed” by an authorized official, and “producers must document the disposal.” 

It’s important to note that the cultivator can request one retest for THC potency if they believe the result is in error.

Understanding your plant’s genetics and harvesting before too much THC accumulates is key. Depending on your unique situation, we recommend beginning to test your hemp for potency several weeks before the pre-harvest compliance testing window, which is 15 days before planned harvest. 

Once you submit a sample for pre-harvest compliance, we’ll analyze it for total THC using our rigorous ISO/IEC 17025:2017-accredited standards. Once testing is complete, we’ll notify you and present a COA with a clear PASS / FAIL notation regarding your total THC potency. We’ll also submit results to the appropriate regulatory authority. 

If your total THC falls below 0.3% within an established MU, you’ll receive a PASS notation on your COA. If total THC falls outside that range, you’ll see the word FAIL on your COA, since it will legally be considered cannabis, a Schedule I Controlled Substance and therefore, not legal to grow, process or transport under the Interim Final Rule. Note that this is true even in states where cannabis has been legalized for medical or adult recreational use, since the licenses for cultivating hemp are different than licenses for cultivating medical or adult-use cannabis. 

Hemp COAs: Cannabinoid Potency, Pesticide Contamination, Terpenes and More

Tests conducted for product R&D purposes outside of the pre-harvest compliance window (or alongside it) can help you understand your hemp product more holistically. In addition to plant material, we can also test infused products and extracts for a variety of contaminants or to gain a more granular understanding of product aspects such as terpene and cannabinoid content. 

Knowing the cannabinoid content of your hemp material can help you determine what its best uses are—for example, while CBG and CBD are both sought-after cannabinoids, their optimal uses differ. Potency results for each of these cannabinoids and 13 others are found at the top of the COA. 

Terpenes offer flavor and aromatic profiles that enhance hemp products, and they also work synergistically with other compounds found in the hemp plant to create distinct therapeutic effects. The terpene pinene, for example, lends a piney flavor and is shown to counteract memory loss associated with THC while valencene boasts orangey aromas and is purported to be anti-inflammatory. We test for the presence and precise concentration of 36 unique terpenes and clearly display those results on your COA.

And if you’re a cultivator or processor looking to verify the quality of your hemp extract or product, full safety panels with tests such as microbial and pesticide screening are essential. Beyond the <0.3% THC potency level mandated by the federal government, states have varying laws and regulations regarding the presence of pesticides, heavy metals, colony-forming units (CFUs) of molds and more—rigorous and accurate testing is your first line of defense in ensuring you meet those regulations. 

We’re Here to Help

At Trichome Analytical, we’re here to help empower you. If you have any questions regarding how to interpret your COA, please contact us. As the hemp industry grows, professionals with detailed knowledge of their hemp who comply with regulations and are transparent about what’s in their products will have an advantage over their industry peers and be well positioned to grow and thrive.