U.S – Michigan State University (MSU) has secured a U.S$611,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA’s NIFA) to explore the absorption of heavy metals, notably arsenic, cadmium, and lead, by crops.

Spearheaded by Wei Zhang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil, and Microbial Sciences, the research aims to advance food safety and align with evolving industry standards.

In response to growing concerns over contaminant exposure in foods, especially those consumed by infants and young children, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched the Closer to Zero initiative in 2021.

The initiative seeks to reduce exposure to heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in food products.

The research team assembled for this endeavor includes accomplished experts from diverse departments at MSU, each bolstered by support from MSU AgBioResearch.

Among them are Zachary Hayden, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Horticulture; Hui Li, a distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences; Kurt Steinke, an Associate Professor and MSU Extension Specialist within the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences; and Felicia Wu, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor, spanning the Departments of Food Science and Human Nutrition, as well as Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

This collaborative team brings together a wealth of expertise to unravel the intricate facets of heavy metal crop uptake and its implications for food safety.

As the FDA is expected to establish guidelines for maximum allowable levels of these heavy metals in foods, the research by Zhang and the team holds significant implications for farmers and food processors.

The complexity of factors influencing heavy metal uptake in crops, including soil type, climate conditions, and crop species, underscores the need for collaborative solutions throughout the food supply chain.

This USDA-funded project builds upon ongoing research efforts. Zhang, Hayden, Li, and Steinke are already testing soil amendments’ effectiveness in minimizing carrot uptake of multiple heavy metals, a study supported by a Specialty Crop Block Grant through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The broader aim is to equip Michigan’s carrot growers with essential insights to predict and manage uptake risk, ensuring safer products for consumers.

The research aligns well with the intentions of the Closer to Zero initiative, which seeks to provide a healthier food landscape for all.

Moreover, the research team, including Zhang, Li, and Wu, is involved in assessing cadmium exposure from crops such as rice and spinach, alongside utilizing innovative machine learning techniques to predict crop uptake of contaminants more accurately.

This multi-pronged approach signifies MSU’s commitment to enhancing food safety and reinforcing sustainable agricultural practices.

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