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Let’s Keep Our Mazes to Corn Fields… Navigating EPA's Pesticide Registration Process

So, I don’t often blog… but I am learning to push myself outside my comfort zone. How many times do we all say, “there are no silly questions” or “someone else in the room probably has the same question or confusion”. In the spirit of hoping I am not the only one, here we go…


You know a topic is complex when you find yourself part of a diverse team of smart individuals tackling the topic of pesticides and raw agricultural commodities for the sake of the greater good, and for free no less. I’m referring to the CYCAT, LLC supported effort to develop an industry white paper on pesticide testing.


They say there are no coincidences, but timing is everything and I was recently a tagalong to one of my husband’s presentations for a pesticide recertification class. For the sake of transparency, he is a Professor and Extension Specialist of Plant Pathology and has been a contributor to several production guides detailing IPM and pesticide recommendations. Between these two activities I was shown the entrance to what I can only describe as a maze. Pesticide registration and regulation is full of twists and turns. Always the fan of a good maze, I decided to make my own cheat sheet… enjoy!


Pesticides are used often in the world of agriculture and pest management. However, ensuring the safety and effectiveness of these chemical solutions requires a maze of regulation and oversight. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands at the entrance to this endeavor, tasked with the responsibility of registering new pesticides or modifying existing ones under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Ever wondered how pesticides are approved for specific crops and pests? Or who decides which instructions appear on those pesticide labels? Let's navigate the maze of the EPA registration process and discuss the important roles of the pesticide registrant and the EPA.


Who Calls the Shots

First, it's important to understand that the registrant- the entity seeking approval for a pesticide- holds the reins when it comes to making decisions on which crops and pests that a particular pesticide can be used on. The EPA does not dictate or suggest which crops or pests should be listed on the label. Instead, it's the registrant who makes these decisions based on their research and product/ market knowledge. The EPA reviews and approves the registration process (EPA isn’t going to magically grant labels or label modifications).


Labels Aren't Set in Stone

Once a pesticide label is approved, it does not remain static forever. In fact, pesticide labels can undergo changes over time, with the approval of the EPA. This flexibility allows for adjustments based on new research findings, field experiences, emerging pest issues, or product safety concerns. For a good example of this, check out the “Controversial Comeback of Chlorpyrifos”. Staying informed ensures that you are using pesticides responsibly and in accordance with approved label instructions. One private organization (e.g., not governmental) that maintains up-to-date labels is Here, you can access information on approved pesticides, including the latest usage instructions, application rates, and safety precautions.


Why Label Adjustments Matter

Consider this scenario: a pesticide initially approved for use on a specific crop may later be found effective on another crop as well. In such cases, the registrant can request label modifications to reflect this expanded use. Similarly, if field experiences reveal the need to alter usage rates for better efficacy or safety, the registrant can propose adjustments to the label under EPA review.


Maze Mastery: Unlocking the EPA Registration Process

While the maze analogy is a play on the intricate process, it is important to note EPA has a great responsibility in navigating through these crucial decisions to safeguarding both human health and the environment. The process for registering pesticides in the United States by the EPA is outlined below:


  1. Preliminary Screening: Before a pesticide can even begin the journey towards registration, it must pass through a preliminary screening process conducted by the EPA. This initial checkpoint ensures that applications are complete and meet basic regulatory standards, setting the stage for further evaluation.


  1. Data Submission: Pesticide manufacturers or registrants are required to provide a wealth of data regarding the chemical composition, toxicity, environmental impact, and efficacy of the proposed pesticide. These data, gleaned from laboratory studies, field trials, and scientific research, form the foundation upon which the EPA's risk assessment will be built.


  1. Risk Assessment: Central to the EPA's decision-making process is a comprehensive risk assessment. Here, the agency scrutinizes the potential human health and environmental risks posed by the pesticide under consideration. From toxicity profiles to exposure levels, every aspect is analyzed to gauge the safety and efficacy of the pesticide in question.


  1. Public Review and Comment: Transparency and public engagement are paramount in the EPA's pesticide registration process. Once an application for a pesticide has been thoroughly assessed, the EPA opens the floor to stakeholders and the general public for review and comment. This inclusive approach allows for a diverse range of perspectives to be considered before final decisions are made.


  1. Decision-Making: Armed with data, risk assessments, and public feedback, the EPA makes the critical decision of whether to approve or deny the pesticide registration application. Should the application be approved, the EPA may impose specific conditions, label requirements, or usage restrictions to mitigate identified risks and ensure safe and effective use.


  1. Registration Approval: With the EPA's seal of approval, the pesticide is officially registered for use in the United States. Each registered pesticide is assigned a unique EPA registration number, signifying its compliance with rigorous safety and efficacy standards. From this point forward, the pesticide can be legally sold, distributed, and utilized in accordance with approved label instructions.


  1. Post-Market Monitoring and Surveillance: Even after registration, the journey does not end for the EPA. The agency continues to monitor and evaluate the performance, safety, and environmental impact of registered pesticides through post-market surveillance programs. Should new information arise indicating potential risks or concerns, the EPA stands ready to take regulatory action to protect public health and the environment.


Pesticide Label Greenlight, But Another Maze Begins

So, what happens after a pesticide is approved for use? How do regulatory agencies ensure that resides are within safe limits on food crops? Pesticide regulation in the United States is a multifaceted endeavor, involving key agencies such as the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and state agencies. We are back in the maze again…The EPA approves pesticides and sets tolerances, often referred to as maximum residue levels (MRLs), for pesticide residues in food. The FDA enforces these tolerances, testing imported and domestically produced foods to ensure compliance, acting if residues exceed limits (e.g., Detention Without Physical Examination and Import Alerts). But the FDA doesn’t regulate all foods, so certain commodities like meat, poultry, processed eggs, and catfish fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA.


Enter Pesticide Residues and Testing

MRLs are the maximum allowable concentration of pesticide residues in or on food and agricultural products. The EPA sets MRLs that are specific to the food/crop and pesticide. These limits serve as regulatory benchmarks limiting potential risks associated with pesticide exposures. Hence pesticide testing of residues is important in the regulatory landscape as well as consumer safety. Sometimes residues are detected that are approved for one item, but violative for another…check out a blog from CYCAT exploring pesticide residue risk and adjacent land use.

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Exiting the Maze

In conclusion, navigating the maze of the EPA's pesticide registration process reveals a complex system. With the EPA as the gatekeeper, the process involves rigorous screening, data submission, risk assessment, public review, and decision-making. Each step is crucial in determining the safety and efficacy of pesticides before they are approved for use. However, the responsibility does not end there. Post-market monitoring and surveillance ensure ongoing evaluation and regulatory action if risks emerge. The regulatory landscape extends beyond EPA approval, with other agencies like the FDA and USDA overseeing pesticide residues in food. The establishment of MRLs (or tolerances) serve as a critical safeguard, supported by comprehensive pesticide residue testing by laboratories to verify limits. Staying informed and engaged in this intricate process is essential for responsible pesticide use. So, the maze plays an indispensable role in maintaining the delicate balance between agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability.

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