The US Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, has made it clear that the US government now values money more than it values health safety.

He did this when he indicated that "an economic motive was behind the government’s delay of nearly three weeks before informing the public about the contamination, as the government anticipated foreign rice importers might reject the product". The "contamination" was of rice for human consumption with experimental genetically modified rice strain known as LL Rice 601, and Mr Johanns said the USDA spent the time preparing tests. This seems to reveal that, till this point, the US government had no system for such testing in place (though many US companies do test).

Till yesterday, 30 August, the US government had not even given the food safety authorities in the European Union details of "the extent of the contamination, origin or timeframe for when this happened". Legally, no biotech rice strains may be imported or sold in the European Union and, last week, the EU tightened requirements on U.S. long grain rice imports to prove the absence of the genetically modified strain.

Presumably, the EU has not had any information either regarding what, if anything, the US government can do about the situation, as that country does not even have any "cohesive government regulation" according to a just-released report issued by the Food and Drug Administration and written by a 20-member committee of farmers, academics, manufacturers and others.

The US government's report both points out and demonstrates that there is little consensus as to how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should regulate genetically engineered crops and animals. Currently, companies selling genetically enhanced crops submit safety data voluntarily to the FDA even though they are not required to do so. The US government claims that the majority do so.

Some committee members argued there should be a mandatory safety review for all such products, pointing out that nearly every other developed country has such a system in place. Naturally, other committee members disagreed – after all, some of them represent precisely the money-related interests referred to at the start of this article.

The committee's members "have different points of view regarding how strongly consumers feel about having information about whether their food is genetically engineered and whether the food should be labelled as such".

The report, titled "Opportunities and Challenges in Agricultural Biotechnology: the Decade Ahead", is available on the USDA website, at: http://www.usda.gov/documents/final_main_report-v6.doc,

There is no evidence on the basis of which it can be asserted that the individuals on the committee opposing such oversight are, or are not, representatives of commercial interests. However, the committee includes representatives of Cargill, Dow Agrisciences, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Monsanto, Procter and Gamble, and Syngenta Corp.

You may be wondering why I am beating the drum regarding genetically modified food. After all, Secretary Johanns stated that based on "available scientific data.... there are no human-health, food-safety or environmental concerns associated with this G.E. rice."

However, scientific data sometimes misses the obvious. It is clear to anyone who has seen a random sample of US citizens that the obesity epidemic in the USA has perhaps something to do with overeating but is in very many cases totally unrelated to overeating. The "obesity" is a result of some sort of physical malfunction, and that this malfunction affects US citizens disproportionately in comparison to citizens of other developed nations.

According to the USDA, 70 percent of processed foods on grocery store shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients.

That may or may not have anything to do with the US version of "obesity". But does it not indicate that there is certainly something to investigate here?

If nothing else, the US needs to have some facts regarding what percentage of "obesity" is caused by simple over-eating and what percentage by other known or unknown factors.

Time for Secretary Johanns to stop making the usual reassuring noises and defending money interests, and instead to put a little money behind some targeted research into the relationship between the prevalence of GM products in the USA and accelerating health problems there.

Prabhu Guptara