Does protecting proprietary methods as a revenue stream outweigh the benefits and ethics of scientific collaboration and consensus?

Elan Sudberg, CEO

May 4, 2016

3 Min Read
No transparency, no confidence. Know transparency, know confidence.

As a testing lab, we sometimes find ourselves in the position of being either our long-term client's staunchest ally in working to protect their quality, or our short-term client's adversary in efforts to protect someone else's quality. Sometimes it simply comes down to ethics in evaluating what to do with conflicting lab results.

Now with relative newcomer DNA technology providing one more potentially confusing data point to the plethora of longer established scientifically valid testing methodologies we are allowed to use, we see more and more of these contradictory test results. So what happens next when one lab passes material and another lab fails it?

Recently we had an experience where a client had a specific species of cinnamon bark for sale. They had it DNA tested at another lab, and it passed. They then sold the ingredient to another client of ours who sent it in to us for HPTLC, and the sample failed. See, the sample they sent us was missing or had very low concentration of a phytochemical that is unique to a specific species of cinnamon bark. Now what? Ideally, experts come together to talk through the methods to find the source of the discrepancy.

In this situation, one of these clients requested a conference call with all parties. We welcomed the opportunity to explain our results, hear the other lab's explanation of their results, and then, expert to expert, discuss the science to determine the source of the discrepancy so the client could decide how to proceed. Imagine this as a form of peer review, with the ultimate goal of utilizing transparency and expertise to arrive at accuracy.

The actual experience was less like a scientific summit and more like a schoolyard scuffle, but with higher stakes. To summarize, the other lab was unwilling to discuss the testing they had performed, saying, "that's our secret sauce." We asked what region of the genome they analyzed, since with the wrong one, to use a notorious example, ginkgo could look like a houseplant. Again, no information was forthcoming. So the call ended with no resolution and unhappy clients.

In such a case when a company has two contradictory reports, they have a hard choice to make. They can choose to "test into compliance" and accept the passing lab result and disregard the failing one. Or they can acknowledge the failing test result and disregard the passing one. It's a question of efficacy, rigorous regulatory compliance and safety over losing money on a large batch probably already in process. Enter ethics ...

You have to wonder, in a situation where a company or lab is refusing to show or share data, is that because there is something to hide? Are they simply afraid of what others might find, potentially casting doubt on all the data? Or does protecting proprietary methods as a revenue stream outweigh the benefits and ethics of scientific collaboration and consensus? Will lack of transparency undermine their credibility in the scientific community? Does it matter?

At a time when the industry has been hit upside the head by the necessity to improve quality and clearly demonstrate how companies are producing products that are what they are supposed to be, the wisest people in the industry are advocating transparency, not recommending that marketing departments start working on opacity campaigns. We believe that testing labs must be part of this commitment to a sustainable industry.

The "secret sauce" defense of not sharing data may fly for McDonald's or Burger King, but it does not fly in science, where the data is essential for determining the scientific validity of one's conclusions. It might as well be dry lab "data." If it can't be seen, then it doesn't exist. what-do-you-think_sans4.gif

The best path forward for the long-term sustainability of our industry is to side with substantiation, side with cooperation, side with transparency and side with ethical choices.

About the Author(s)

Elan Sudberg

CEO, Alkemist Labs

Élan M. Sudberg is CEO of Alkemist Labs, a passionately committed contract testing laboratory specializing in plant and fungal identity, potency and purity testing for the food, beverage, nutraceutical and psychedelic industries. His favorite part of his job is catching cheaters, and he is known for pushing the industry to continually raise the bar on quality and transparency. Élan holds a degree in chemistry from California State University Long Beach, and he is on the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA) board of trustees.

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