February 14, 2015

Quality Control 101, Part I. Third Party Testing is Good for You

Alexis St-Gelais, M. Sc., chimiste - Popularization

Any business in the field of natural substances production (encompassing health products, extracts, refined phytochemicals, herbs, essential oils, and anything comprising one of these ingredients) will eventually have to take a stand about the kind of quality control that should be performed on its products. In many cases, complex chemistry is at stake, which requires some specific testing. There are three possible views on this matter.

The first approach is laissez-faire: considering that quality control is costly or superfluous. This is a risky path. Quality control ensures that those products you put on the market are reliable and consistent. Your reputation is at stake - and in business, reputation means a lot. Providing certificates of analysis to your customers is a huge demonstration of seriousness. Without quality control, you also give up on opportunities to improve your methods on the basis of solid scientific data. Most of all, you put yourself at risk of being challenged by customers, only to be unable to answer their questions. Some cases even end up in court, with heavy associated costs. Quality control is an insurance policy, and should be considered just as you probably also consider insurances against fire or theft. As such, it is not surprising that batch to batch quality control is mandatory under several regulations, especially when health claims are at stake.

It should be noted that as far as batches are involved, performing a test once on one batch is not quality control at all. The results can under no circumstance be extrapolated to subsequent batches without incurring serious risks of being challenged. Variation is a normal component of production processes, and it should be monitored to make sure that it remains within reasonable boundaries.

Chemical quality control requires some
specific equipment, which are not always
worth the cost for your sole internal needs.
A second approach to quality control is to proceed with internal testing. This can be a very good habit. It lets you detect quickly any failure in your processes, and react before anything is released on the market. However, for most small businesses, anything beyond simple physicochemical testing such as pH will likely be much costlier when performed by your own team. Purchasing the equipment, taking care of it, and having access to properly trained employees can be quite a hassle. Internally performed tests also suffer a major drawback: you place yourself in an apparent conflict of interest when providing your customers with internal certificates of analysis. Whether consciously or not, you will be faced with a pressure to come up with analytical results that are in your favor. Even if you strive to stand by the results you get, some customers might (in due right) frown upon this practice and have their own testing done. If a discrepancy is found, it will be up to you to stand by your results, explain them, and eventually legally enforce them. In all this process, you will always start with a strike against you, since there is no objective distance between your company and the results you have.

The safest way to go is to proceed with third party testing of quality, for several if not all of your lots. My colleague Laurie has briefly covered this matter previously, in a post about alimentary fraud. Independant laboratories such as ours count on a highly trained staff, strictly dedicated to chemical analyses. They are also already equiped with what is required for your needs, and if you sum up the cost of your third party quality control plan, it is likely far less than what you would have paid for your own equipment and staff. Having someone outside your business test your products tremendously empowers the certificates you provide to your own customers: there is no way that you can interfere in the production of the scientific data, and as such your partners may have a high level of trust in your numbers. You will also be completely sure that anything unusual will honestly be reported to you - with proper scientific counseling to solve the problem. And last but not least, should you ever be challenged, the responsibility is not yours. It is up to the third party laboratory to deal with the situation and demonstrate the quality of their own results. This leaves you with your time, money and energy to keep up with your own business.

Even if you go with internal quality control, it is a great idea to send from time to time one of your batches to a third party laboratory for independent testing. This lets you check whether your methods are up to date, and if your results are reliable. Random batch retesting is an essential component of well-designed quality control.

All in all, third party testing is the best way to enforce your seriousness and reliability in your business. It is also an excellent way to keep your money and peace of mind, should trouble arise. As a trained chemist, I can only highly recommend to consider performing at least ponctual third party testing of your products, if it is not already the case in your organization. This is a strong commitment to high-quality and independant standards, which can in turn influence your relationship with your own customers.

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