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Agricultural News

SequesterThis: Coburn Calls on USDA to Sober Up, Cancel Wine Tastings

Tue, 05 Mar 2013 13:42:42 CST

SequesterThis: Coburn Calls on USDA to Sober Up, Cancel Wine Tastings
Senator Tom Coburn sent the following letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack calling on the agency to cancel two planned conferences in California and Oregon scheduled to take place in the coming weeks that will feature guest chefs and exceptional wines for department employees. "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. This is the sixth letter Dr. Coburn has sent the Administration on how they can prioritize sequestration and better manage agencies by eliminating wasteful and questionable spending:

Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

The administration has indicated as a result of sequestration "USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may have to furlough all employees for approximately two weeks. 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."

I appreciate your personal commitment to agriculture and farmers and I am confident with your leadership such dire circumstances can be avoided.

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.   

For example, two USDA agencies-Rural Development and Agricultural Marketing Service-are sponsoring the 26th annual California Small Farm Conference next week.   In addition to speakers from USDA agencies, the gathering will feature field trips and tasting receptions.   "The Tasting Reception is the most well attended networking event of the conference and 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.

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.

Last week, the Office of Management and Budget advised departments to give increased scrutiny to spending on conferences and travel, noting "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. 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."

In light of sequestration and OMB's directive:
(1)          Does the department plan to cancel its participation in these or any other upcoming conferences or meetings?
(2)          If not, how many employees will attend each of these two conferences and how much is the total cost likely to be to the Department for sponsorship, attendance (by department employees or others whose attendance is supported in any way by the department), and other support for each conference?
(3)          Can you provide a list of all other conferences USDA will host or sponsor for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 and the estimated cost for each along with the number of individuals (department employees and others) whose participation is funded in part by USDA expected to attend?

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I would appreciate a response no later than March 11, 2013. It is important that we as public officials lead by example and I look forward to continuing to work with you to save taxpayers money and better prioritize government spending.


Tom A. Coburn, M.D.
Ranking Member
Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs



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