Laws about pesticides: Residues

Many consumers wonder about the safety of pesticides in our food system. Let’s explore the various laws in place to help keep our food supply safe.

Farm market

Are there any laws requiring food producers to disclose pesticides are used on their products?

There are not any laws in Michigan or on the federal level that require food producers to disclose pesticides on their products either on the label or through any disclosure form; however, the use of pesticides in fresh produce is highly regulated.

All pesticides are specifically labeled for use against certain pests on certain crops. This labeling is considered federal law. If a pesticide is used in a way not specifically stated on the label (either through over-application or application against a pest or crop not stated on the label), the crop it is used on is considered adulterated and the farmer can face crop seizure, a fine or jail time.

Scientists, both with chemical companies and at universities, have spent years studying labeled chemicals used for food crops. They have determined the degradation times, human toxicity, non-target organisms (such as bees, frogs and fish) toxicity and potential environmental impacts of these chemicals before they were approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the regulatory body for pesticides—for release. The EPA reviews this data and considers the totality of a person’s pesticide exposure when granting companies label uses. It considers the average exposure, through diet and in the environment, for an individual and carefully considers difference in exposure for adults, seniors and children when figuring out how many types of things it will allow a pesticide to be labeled for use upon. If a particular use would increase the risk of exposure of any one group over a certain threshold, it is denied.

Many private companies go further in monitoring the pesticides used on the food they purchase from fruit and vegetable farmers. In several cases, companies hire their own integrated pest management (IPM) scouts to scout fields of farmers they will be buying from, specify the types of pesticides that can and cannot be used as well as the rates of application on their crops. All these specifications are more rigid than the law. Other produce buyers require all pest management records be audited annually for proper use. In general, the larger the fruit and vegetable farm, the greater the number of controls in place.

Both federally and in Michigan, a class of pesticides and herbicides are marked as “restricted use.” This means the sale and application of these chemicals is limited to licensed dealers who may sell that product to a certified applicator only. Each of these groups is required to take and pass examinations that demonstrate they understand how to reduce the potential risks associated with the application of pesticides. Applicators must pass a standard or core exam and a more specific exam that relates to the subcategory of pesticides they will apply. Michigan State University Extension provides education for safe pesticide application through our IPM team.

There is an increasing effort to improve the traceability of food to address any potential foodborne illness. Traceability is a form of documentation that follows the food product from the farm to the retailer. Traceability standards are becoming more common to allow products to be linked back to the source to investigate potential vectors of contamination or infection. This can also add to the understanding of how food is grown on a particular farm or even a specific area of a field on that farm. This form of tracking requires that records be kept of the farming practices, and harvest and handling of foods on farms.

Ensuring that our food supply is safe and wholesome is a priority for federal, state and local governments, for farmers and food producers, and for Michigan State University Extension. Laws and regulations are in place and enforced to make sure chemical pest controls are used in accordance with labels, to reduce incidents of foodborne illness and to improve on-farm food safety.

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