The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act protects human health and the environment by establishing a comprehensive regulatory system to govern the use of pesticides in agriculture.

U.S. laws began to regulate pesticides as long ago as 1910. The basic law in this area, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), was first enacted in 1947, but dramatically revised in 1972 to reflect the new environmental consciousness of that time, and significantly updated in 1996 to make food standards more stringent and provide additional safeguards for children. Under FIFRA’s basic structure, chemical manufacturers are required to prove the safety of pesticides and other chemicals before they can sell them. Although states are able to place further restrictions on pesticides (and some do), FIFRA establishes a common framework for the entire nation.

Farmers’ use of pesticides has been changing in recent years. Between 1996 and 2007, real expenditures on pesticides in agriculture fell an average of 2.4% per year, while quantities used declined an average of 1.4% per year, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data. Separate data from the Department of Agriculture show total pounds of pesticides used in U.S. agriculture rose rapidly from the early 1960s to reach 632 million pounds in 1981, primarily due to weed-control needs. However, since then total pesticide use has trended downward, reaching 516 million pounds in 2008, the most recent year of USDA data – an 18% decline. Most U.S. growers adopt some form of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which uses information on pest life-cycles and environmental interactions to apply chemicals only when needed, managing pest damage economically and with the least possible hazard.

Operation: FIFRA requires the establishment of tolerances – the maximum amount of pesticide residue that can be on a raw agricultural product at the time it is used. The tolerances are set with an ample margin of safety, and any food that exceeds them is considered unsafe and cannot legally be sold under U.S. food safety laws.

EPA, which administers FIFRA, requires all new pesticides to be registered. Registration does not simply mean that a chemical is legal, but allows its use only on specified crops at particular application rates. Registrations must be supported by scientific research data. Since science advances over time, FIFRA requires pesticides to be re-registered every 15 years. EPA also has the power to cancel or suspend a pesticide’s registration at any time.

Some pesticides are classified as “restricted use” and may only be used by “certified applicators” who have undergone training prescribed by EPA. For all pesticides, EPA sets requirements for information that must be on product labels, such as when and how products are to be applied, mixed and stored; when workers can safely re-enter fields after a pesticide is used; and when crops can be harvested.

Administration and Enforcement: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers and enforces FIFRA‘s requirements with respect to registration and re-registration, the establishment of tolerances and similar matters. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, would take enforcement action against any food found to exceed pesticide tolerances, unless it was meat, poultry or processed egg products, in which case the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the Department of Agriculture would take enforcement action.

Statutory Authority: 7 U.S.C. 136-136y, 21 U.S.C. 346a