By TIM HEARDEN
A U.S. senator is questioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture's involvement in a pair of West Coast conferences in light of planned furloughs of meat inspectors and other sequestration-related cuts.
In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., noted that two USDA agencies - Rural Development and Agricultural Marketing Service - are sponsoring next week's California Small Farm Conference in Fresno, where attendees will be treated to wine tasting and foods from local farms and chefs.
Coburn noted that wine tasting was also on the itinerary at the Priester National Extension Health Conference next month in Corvalis, Ore., for which the USDA is listed as a sponsor.
The conferences come after Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee that furloughing Food Safety and Inspection Service meat inspectors could not be avoided under across-the-board reductions that went into effect March 1.
"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 in his March 4 letter to Vilsack.
"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," the senator wrote.
USDA spokeswoman Stephanie Chan responded that the agency doesn't provide financial support for the Priester conference and has asked its organizers to remove the USDA logo from their website.
She said farmers attending the California Small Farm Conference pay for the wine tasting, and that the conference is not for USDA employees.
"While employee conferences have decreased significantly in recent years, farmers, ranchers and other constituents benefit from many conferences and forums because they provided access to experts, new research and other practices to strengthen the rural economy," Chan told the Capital Press in an email.
The letter to Vilsack was one of about a half-dozen that Coburn has sent to various federal officials questioning spending priorities in light of the sequestration, which was called for in the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The senator has also participated in a Twitter campaign called #SequesterThis, highlighting examples of what he sees as examples of frivolous spending or duplication of services.
Coburn asked the USDA secretary to detail the costs of attending and participating in the two West Coast conferences as well as any others that are scheduled for this fiscal year, and asked whether the agency plans to cancel its participation as a result of the cuts.
Chan said the USDA has "aggressively managed travel, conference and administrative costs" to achieve $700 million in savings over the last three fiscal years.
Based on how Congress structured the sequestration law, Chan said, the USDA cannot transfer funds from agencies such as AMS or Rural Development to the FSIS.
Sen. Coburn letter to Secretary Vilsack: http://www.coburn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?a=Files.Serve&File_id=9cae6c26-e557-4178-888b-9fe1455bab9e