Questions About Pesticides in Food

EVEN IF YOU NEVER USE PESTICIDES YOURSELF, you can still be exposed to them—at home, school, work, or play—by being in treated areas, as a consumer of commodities that others have treated with pesticides, or through food, water, and air that may have been contaminated with pesticides (1).

To ensure a safe food supply, EPA regulates the safety of food by setting safety standards to limit the amount of pesticide residues that legally may remain in or on food or animal feed that is sold in the United States. Both domestic and imported foods are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure compliance with these safety standards (1).

Because most crops are treated with pesticides at least some of the time, foods you buy at the grocery store may contain small traces of pesticide residues. Pesticide levels tend to decline over time because the residues break down and because crops are usually washed and processed before reaching the marketplace. So, while we all consume small amounts of pesticides regularly, levels in our food generally are well below legal limits by the time the food reaches the grocery shelves (1). Here are some common questions that are asked about pesticides in our food:

In August, 1996, the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) was signed into law. The law amends the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), and calls for major changes in pesticide regulation by both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Please see Pesticide reform of the Delaney Clause, and Pesticide Regulation.

The major provisions of the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) include: a new safety standard for all pesticide residues in food based on a "reasonable certainty of no harm"; aggregate exposure from all sources, such as drinking water and residential exposure, and dietary exposure must be considered; pesticides with a common mechanism of toxicity will be assessed as a group to determine cumulative exposure; aggregate exposure to all pesticides cannot have a risk greater than 1 excess cancer death in a million people. EPA must consider children’s special sensitivity and exposure to pesticides. EPA is required under the new law to develop and use a screening and testing program for chemicals with the potential to disrupt the endocrine process (endocrine disruptors).

EPA is required under FQPA to develop a simple, understandable consumer brochure on pesticide residues in food to be distributed to retail grocers for public display. Grocers will display the brochure on a voluntary basis. Detailed information on pesticide residues in food is reported annually by the Food and Drug Administration and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

Prior to the registration of a pesticide, EPA requires testing to determine safe levels in food. Testing involves feeding high doses of each pesticide to laboratory animals to determine adverse effects (including cancer) from both acute (short term) and chronic (long term) exposures. From these studies a reference dose (RfD) is determined. The RfD is defined by EPA as an "estimate of a daily exposure level for the human population, including sensitive subpopulations, that is likely to be without appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime". In simpler terms, this is EPA’s estimate of a what is a safe level of exposure to pesticides in the diet. Please see the EXTOXNET FAQ - Adverse Health Risk Assessment page for an in-depth explanation, or see links below.

Based on the RfD and estimates of food consumption patterns for the US population, for each raw commodity or processed food, EPA establishes a residue level for each pesticide that if exceeded is a violation of law. This safe level is called a food tolerance. In addition, if a raw commodity or processing fraction containing pesticides is used for animal feed, then tolerances may be required for animal products such as meat, milk, or eggs. It is FDA’s responsibility to test for the presence of pesticide residues in food and to insure that tolerances are not exceeded. Under FQPA, for each pesticide EPA must consider all other exposures and reassess all existing food tolerances. In addition, food tolerances must be based on the aggregate exposure to pesticides with a common mechanism of action. Finally, in reassessing food tolerances, infants and children must be given special consideration, and tolerances lowered if necessary. Please see links below.

The FDA does random testing of imported food for pesticides. Samples are collected at the point of entry into U.S. commerce. Foods that are imported into the United States must meet the same pesticide tolerance levels as domestic food. Following one violation FDA may automatically detain all future shipments if there is reason to believe that the problem will persist. More imported products are found to be in violation than domestic products, but the percent is still very low, generally less than 1% for domestic food and less than 5% for imported food. A violation usually does not mean that dangerously high levels of pesticide are present. A violation can occur when residues of a pesticide not registered in the U.S. are present, or when pesticide food residues are present for which no tolerance has been established. Many of our imported foods come from Mexico. One aim of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is to insure that pesticide use in Mexico results in fewer violations of food tolerances. Please see links below.

As a part of the food tolerance setting process, EPA also determines how close to harvest that a pesticide may be applied to insure that residues in the raw agricultural product, or processed foods containing that product, will be below tolerance. For each pesticide and crop the EPA has established a pre-harvest interval (PHI), which may restrict pesticide use from a few days up to weeks before harvest. Many pesticides are not applied close to harvest, and may never result in food residues. In a recent national survey by USDA, using methods that test for over 100 commonly used pesticides, 35% of all fruits and vegetables tested had no detectable pesticide residues. Together, EPA and USDA have pledged to develop incentives to reduce pesticide use and to encourage the use of safer pest control practices which rely heavily of integrated pest management (IPM) in which pesticides may often play a minor role. As a requirement of the current Farm Bill, USDA has proposed national standards for organic produce, which should facilitate increased food and feed production using organic practices.

According to the 1996 National Academy of Sciences report "Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children", the health risks from pesticide exposure experienced by infants and children may differ from adults both in the nature and severity of the effect. Accordingly, for some pesticides, infants and children may be at greater risk than adults. This increased risk may be due to increased sensitivity to some pesticides, or due to the potential for higher exposure, as it is known that infants and children consume much greater quantities of certain foods than do adults on a body weight basis. Under FQPA, EPA is required to reassess food tolerances with regard to their safety to infants and children. Please see the EXTOXNET FAQ site: Unique Sensitivity of Children

Depending on the food, the pesticide, and the cleanup process, up to 99% of the residues can be removed by the time fresh produce is ready for the table. Following these tips will reduce and often eliminate residues:

  1. Wash produce with large amounts of cold or warm tap water, and scrub with a brush when appropriate: DO NOT USE SOAP!
  2. Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage.
  3. Peel produce such as apples, pears, potatoes, and carrots.
  4. Trim fat from meat, and fat and skin from poultry and fish. Residues of some pesticides concentrate in animal fat.


(1) US EPA, Citizens Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety, September 1995. URL:

Here are some very informative internal and external links that pertain to pesticide in food:

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This Page prepared by the EXTOXNET FAQ Team. , January 1998