Sen. Coburn urges USDA to nix wine-tasting 'getaways' amid sequester warnings



Instead of furloughing meat inspectors, why not cancel the wine-tasting getaway in California? 

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., posed that question this week to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, noting that two USDA-sponsored conferences are coming up despite the budget anxiety in Washington over the sequester. One in California includes a "tasting reception;" another in Oregon includes a "wine tasting" element, according to Coburn. 

"While these conferences may be fun, interesting and even educational getaways for department employees, food inspecting rather than food tasting should be USDA's priority at this time," Coburn said in the letter. 

The letter referred to the California Small Farm Conference in Fresno, Calif., a USDA-sponsored event that starts March 10. The event brings farmers and others in the agriculture industry together, and includes a "tasting reception" -- which features "regional bounty" from local chefs, farms, breweries and wineries and is apparently the most well-attended event. 

The other event is the Priester National Extension Health Conference next month in Oregon. 

Coburn asked whether the department plans to "cancel its participation" in these and any other upcoming conferences. 

Reached for comment, the USDA claimed that it has cracked down on conference spending -- without saying whether the department would participate in the California and Oregon events. 

"USDA has been aggressively managing travel and conference costs for the last several years to achieve savings," a USDA spokesperson said. "As a result of this, and other efficiency initiatives, the Department has achieved over $700 million in efficiencies, savings, and cost avoidances during the last three fiscal years." 

Coburn was urging Vilsack to nix "unnecessary spending on travel and conferences" after the White House warned that the sequester cuts that went into effect over the weekend could endanger food inspection, which falls under the USDA. 

"The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could conduct 2,100 fewer inspections at domestic and foreign facilities that manufacture food products while USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks," the White House warned in a fact sheet. "These reductions could increase the number and severity of safety incidents, and the public could suffer more foodborne illness, such as the recent salmonella in peanut butter outbreak and the E. coli illnesses linked to organic spinach, as well as cost the food and agriculture sector millions of dollars in lost production volume." 

But the USDA notes that it cannot transfer funds among different agency accounts. In other words, money saved by canceling conferences for one division might not help retain food inspectors in another. 

Still, as the sequester cuts went into effect last week, the White House budget office sent out guidance to agencies urging them to scrutinize conference spending. 

A House report last week claimed the federal government spent at least $340 million on conferences in 2012.