Coburn to USDA: Halt conferences featuring wine tastings, focus on food safety

Font Size:

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn is calling on Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack to cancel two planned conferences USDA employees are scheduled to attend — set to feature food and wine tasting in California and Oregon.

Coburn’s request comes a little less than a month after the Obama administration pointed out that cuts to USDA due to sequestration could result in furloughs for all employees at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for approximately two weeks and cause food safety concerns.

“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,” the White House warned.

Coburn notes however that despite the food safety concerns the department still has plans to move forward with comparatively trivial conferences and activities.

“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,” Dr. Coburn said in a statement and echoed in a letter he sent to Vilsack.

His letter dated March 4, Coburn urged the agriculture secretary to consider cutting things that likely will not harm the nation’s food supply.

“Because food safety is vital to our nation’s economy and our citizens’ health, I would encourage you to first cancel or eliminate unnecessary spending on travel and conferences,” Coburn wrote.

“For example, two USDA agencies — Rural Development and Agricultural Marketing Service — are sponsoring the 26th annual California Small Farm Conference next week,” he continued. “In addition to speakers from USDA agencies, the gathering will feature field trips and tasting receptions.”

As the California Small Farm Conference website describes, and Coburn highlighted in his letter, the conference will include a tasting reception which “showcases the regional bounty from local farms, chefs, wineries, breweries, bakeries and other food purveyors,” and “special guest chefs will turn donated local agriculture products into tasty dishes to sample with exceptional local wines, brews and spirits.”

“Wine tasting is also part of the itinerary at another USDA sponsored gathering — the Priester National Extension Health Conference — scheduled for next month in Oregon,” Coburn noted.

The Oklahoma senator further pointed out that the Office of Management and Budget offered guidance last week to put spending on conferences and travel on the table.

“In light of the reduced budgetary resources available due to sequestration, expending funds on these activities at this time would in many circumstances not be the most effective way to protect agency mission to the extent practicable,” Coburn’s letter quoted OMB Controller Danny Werfel’s letter to agencies. “Therefore, agency leadership should review processes and controls around these activities, and ensure that these activities are conducted only to the extent they are the most cost-effective way to maintain critical agency mission operations under sequestration.”

Coburn went on to ask if the USDA plans to cancel participating in the two conferences or upcoming conferences and meetings, and if not he requested a cost estimate for each of the conferences. He further asked for a list of all USDA hosted or sponsored events for the remainder of FY 2013 as well as the estimated cost and employee attendance.

Monday’s letter to USDA was Coburn’s sixth letter to the administration highlighting ways to cut spending that eliminates waste and promotes more efficient use of resources.

Coburn set a March 11 deadline for a response from USDA.

Update, 1:38 p.m.: In a statement emailed after publication, a USDA spokesman explained, “USDA has been aggressively managing travel and conference costs for the last several years to achieve savings. 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.”

Under sequestration, USDA is not able to move money between agency accounts notably from USDA’s Rural Development or Agricultural Marketing Service to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Follow Caroline on Twitter