Pesticide Use Regulations on Conventional Fruit and Vegetable Farms

Federal, State and Local Regulation

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) follows a rigorous scientific evaluation process to register pesticides for use in agriculture production to ensure they will not harm human health, non-target species or the environment when used according to label instructions. These evaluations consider protection of infants and children as well as adults from the potential harmful effects of pesticide exposure.

U.S. EPA also reevaluates older pesticides already on the market. If an evaluation raises concern, U.S. EPA can strengthen the conditions for a pesticide’s use or cancel its registration.

U.S. EPA’s authority to register pesticides falls under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) initially passed by Congress in 1947. Pesticides must be registered by U.S. EPA before they can be manufactured, distributed or sold unless they meet the criteria for a minimum-risk pesticide, a special class of pesticides not subject to federal registration requirements because their ingredients are considered safe if used according to label directions. The Pesticides Registration Manual, also known as the Blue Book, details the process for registering all pesticides.

E.P.A.'s Process for Evaluation

U.S. EPA evaluates a pesticide’s potential for health effects using the National Research Council’s four-step process for Human Health Risk Assessments:

Pesticides must be applied in compliance with federal laws, and state laws and regulations that can differ from state to state. California, for example, has the most comprehensive program in the nation to regulate pesticide use.


In California, for example, before farmers can apply most pesticides, they must comply with more than 70 state laws in addition to federal laws and regulations governing their use. This includes requirements for permits for pesticides designated as restricted materials, requirements related to worker safety, transportation, storage and disposal, requirements to protect bees and ground water, and use restrictions to limit emissions to protect public health.

Under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, if a pesticide use may result in residues in a food or animal feed product, a tolerance or an exemption from the requirement of a tolerance must be set by U.S. EPA based on a finding of reasonable certainty of no harm from the use. A tolerance is a maximum allowable limit.

Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state programs conduct sampling and monitoring programs to ensure that tolerance limits are not exceeded. FDA’s Pesticide Monitoring Program has for decades shown that more than 50 percent of samples from market basket testing have no detectable levels of pesticides. The vast majority of detected residues are below U.S. EPA’s established tolerance levels. More information about tolerances is posted here.

Integrated Pest Management

Pest Management Options

Biologically based pesticides, such as pheromones and biopesticides, are becoming increasingly popular with conventional growers and are also used by organic farmers. In addition, U.S. EPA is registering reduced-risk conventional pesticides in increasing numbers.

U.S. EPA and many states promote the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a strategy that emphasizes natural control, pest prevention, use of pesticides as a last resort and using pesticides that are less toxic to people and the environment. IPM practices include crop inspection and monitoring for damage before applying pesticides.

For example, a farmer may initially use biopesticides or mechanical controls such as trapping or weeding. If these less risky controls are not effective, the farmer would apply selective and targeted spraying of pesticides and additional pest control methods. More information about IPM is posted here.

Most importantly, these farmers and their families live and work in the communities where they farm, so protecting the land and the environment is a priority. These farmers also feed their families what they grow. As one third generation farmer recently stated, "I actually answer to a higher authority than the regulatory community, and that's my family who are the first to eat what I grow."

Requirements for Imported Produce


Food imported into the United States is subject to a variety of federal laws and administered by a number of different federal agencies. The FDA’s and USDA’s sampling program to ensure pesticide residues are within established tolerances includes both domestically grown and imported fresh produce.

A food safety organization under the United Nations and the World Health Organization, known as Codex, plays a key role. Codex develops international food safety and quality standards, including Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs), for pesticides to protect the health of consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade. U.S. EPA participates actively in Codex and contributes technical expertise to the development of these international standards and guidelines. A database of MRLs, or tolerances, for U.S. specialty crops is supported by USDA. This database can be searched by crop or pesticide, for the United States or for 90 foreign countries.

Author: Lea Brooks

Former Assistant Director of Communications
California Department of Pesticide Regulations

January 2014