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In this Aug. 4, 2009, file photo, a crop duster sprays a field of crops just outside Headland, Ala. (AP) In this Aug. 4, 2009, file photo, a crop duster sprays a field of crops just outside Headland, Ala. (AP)

In this Aug. 4, 2009, file photo, a crop duster sprays a field of crops just outside Headland, Ala. (AP)

Jason Asenso
By Jason Asenso August 27, 2021

Fact-checking a claim about the FDA’s role in approving pesticides in food

If Your Time is short

  • The EPA sets limits on pesticide residue in food, while the FDA monitors the food supply and enforces the limits.

  • The Pfizer vaccine was approved after meeting the FDA’s standards for vaccine safety.

After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave final approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a health and wellness Facebook group shared a post that seeks to discredit the agency.

"FDA approval means nothing when you realize the FDA also approves pesticides in our food!" the Aug. 23 post said.

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The post implies that since the FDA allows pesticides in food, people shouldn’t trust the agency’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine. But that misrepresents the role of the FDA in regulating pesticides, and ignores the scientific processes that go into vaccine approval decisions.

How the FDA approves vaccines

The post uses a misleading claim about pesticide regulation to argue that FDA approval means nothing. That’s not the case. Full approval by the FDA means that the agency has high confidence in the safety, effectiveness and quality of a drug.

On Aug. 23, the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people 16 and older. The vaccine was previously used under emergency use authorization, a designation that still applies for people between 12 and 15.

"While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product," acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a press release.

Although the COVID-19 vaccines were already deemed safe and effective with the emergency use authorization, full approval means that businesses and schools may have more leeway to require the Pfizer vaccine, and the shot can stay on the market beyond the health emergency.

The FDA says the approval process includes an analysis of the condition and available treatments, assessment of benefits and risks through manufacturer-provided data, and strategies for managing risks associated with the drug.

The road to FDA approval starts with a vaccine undergoing three different phases of clinical trials, according to University of Chicago Medicine. Each phase of the trial increases the number of participants and the scope of what researchers look for.

Vaccine manufacturers then have to submit a Biologics License Application to the FDA, which includes data from clinical and non-clinical trials, technical information, labeling information, and more. In Pfizer’s case, this application built upon the extensive data submitted to support its emergency use authorization.

Pfizer submitted its application for full FDA approval in May 2021, and it was the fastest FDA approval of a vaccine ever.

Featured Fact-check

"The public and medical community can be confident that although we approved this vaccine expeditiously, it was fully in keeping with our existing high standards for vaccines in the U.S.," said Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

The FDA and pesticides

Regulation of pesticides in the food supply is shared between the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA. The regulations concern the safety of the pesticides used in growing food, and how much pesticide residue can remain on food without causing harm. This residue is often measured in parts per million.

Simply put, the EPA sets the allowable limits on pesticide residue that would be safe for human consumption, and the FDA is responsible for enforcing these limits. The limits apply to food that’s imported or grown in the U.S.

In setting the limits, the EPA examines factors such as the pesticide’s toxicity, how much growers apply and how it breaks down.

One way the FDA enforces these limits is through its Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program, which tests a variety of food samples every year to see whether they meet federal guidelines for over 800 pesticides and chemicals.

"Very small amounts of pesticides that may remain in or on fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods decrease considerably as crops are harvested, transported, exposed to light, washed, prepared and cooked," EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll said. "The EPA agrees with experts who recommend consuming a varied diet that includes many fruits and vegetables, and washing them first with plain water to remove dirt, bacteria and pesticide residues."

Under law, the EPA is also required to reevaluate the safety of existing pesticides, although that doesn’t mean the agency isn’t subject to political and industry pressures.

In 2017, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected the agency’s recommendation to ban using chlorpyrifos on food, a pesticide linked to neurological damage in children.

This year, the EPA reversed the decision and announced that it would ban the pesticide, but it will take time to phase out its use on food completely.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claimed that "FDA approval means nothing when you realize the FDA also approves pesticides in our food!"

The FDA does not approve pesticides in food. The EPA sets limits for safe levels of pesticide residue on food, and the FDA monitors the food supply to enforce the limits.

The FDA’s approval process for vaccines begins with three phases of clinical trials to establish their safety and efficacy, and a review of data from clinical and non-clinical trials along with other supporting documentation.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

PolitiFact, Ask PolitFact: When will the COVID-19 vaccines get FDA approval?, July 29, 2021

CNBC, FDA grants full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid vaccine, Aug. 23, 2021

NBC Chicago, Is the Pfizer Vaccine FDA Approved? Yes. Here's What That Means, Aug. 23, 2021

WBIR, Yes, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine received the FDA’s fastest vaccine approval ever, Aug. 24,2021

U.S. News, Pfizer Applies for Full FDA Approval of Coronavirus Vaccine, May 7, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Questions and Answers, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Approves First COVID-19 Vaccine, Aug. 23, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Pesticides, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Is It Really 'FDA Approved?' | FDA, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Reports and Data, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chlorpyrifos, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Index to Pesticide Chemical Names, Part 180 Tolerance Information, and Food and Feed Commodities, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Overview of Risk Assessment in the Pesticide Program, accessed Aug. 25, 2021 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Setting Tolerances for Pesticide Residues in Foods, accessed Aug. 25, 2021

Washington Post, Trump let this pesticide stay on the market. Under Biden, EPA is banning its use on food, Aug. 18, 2021

New York Times, E.P.A. Chief, Rejecting Agency’s Science, Chooses Not to Ban Insecticide, March 29, 2017

Email interview with EPA spokesperson Ken Labbe, Aug. 25, 2021 

Email interview with FDA spokesperson Alice Chen, Aug. 25, 2021 

NPR, EPA Is Banning Pesticide Chlorpyrifos On Food Crops

UChicago Medicine, How does the FDA approve vaccines?, Dec. 21, 2020

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Fact-checking a claim about the FDA’s role in approving pesticides in food

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