Dennis A. Balint, chief executive of the California Walnut Commission,… (David Karp, David Karp )
WASHINGTON — In this era of federal austerity, appetites are souring over spending taxpayer money on dinner parties in India featuring California prunes, cartoons in Spain touting homegrown walnuts and billboards in South Korea extolling American beef.
Yet an effort to end a $200-million-a-year federal program that promotes U.S. agricultural products abroad has run into bipartisan opposition in Congress and has created a rare rift among Republicans in California, which receives a large chunk of the money.
At issue is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provided funds to about 65 groups last year, including nearly $7 million to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, about $4.2 million to the California Walnut Commission and $2.2 million to the California Dried Plum Board. Funds also went to promote U.S.-produced candy, catfish, pet food and popcorn, among other products.
Abroad, the money paid for activities such as a campaign to encourage Japanese diners to "tweet while you eat" to enthuse about U.S. beef. The United Tastes of America — Asian Chef Challenge featured U.S.-grown ingredients.
During a recent House debate, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) ridiculed the use of tax dollars for wine tastings, "an elaborate outdoor dinner party in New Delhi, India, so that food critics could discuss prunes" and "an animated series in Spain promoting walnuts that chronicles the adventures of a squirrel named Super Twiggy and his nemesis the Colesterator."
"Twiggy was a device that we used to get attention," responded Dennis A. Balint, chief executive of the California Walnut Commission, crediting the animated series for boosting consumer awareness of the health benefits of walnuts.
Although the amount is small compared with overall agriculture spending, the fight underscores the struggle on Capitol Hill to reduce Washington's red ink.
The decades-old program has long come under attack, with opponents calling it corporate welfare. "This is one of the most indefensible programs in the entire federal government," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) said during the recent debate.
But the program enjoys the support of politically important farm groups. The groups say it's important to the economy, especially in California, the nation's top agriculture-exporting state.
A GOP-led bid to end the program was soundly defeated in the House last month on a 322-98 vote. The vote split California Republicans: Five voted to kill the program, nine supported it, and one was absent. No California Democrat voted to kill the program.
Still, opponents of the program are expected to try again to end it.
"Too many members of Congress will do just about anything to look good on trade, including paying for advertising and marketing campaigns these companies and associations could easily pay for on their own," said Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The program's supporters say the promotional efforts have boosted farm exports.
"If you're going to cut … don't take the most effective program," added Dan Haley, a Washington lobbyist who represents California prune and walnut industry groups, among others.
Mike Long, a spokesman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), one of the Republicans from California's agriculture-producing Central Valley who supports the program, said it "spurs economic growth and job creation across California."
Supporters also note that trade groups and other participants match or exceed the taxpayer contributions.
Donn Zea, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, said the program helped boost prune sales in India by 89% from 2010 to 2011, calling it a "very good return" on less than $100,000 spent to promote prunes. He noted that the dinner cited during the congressional debate cost $1,200 but drew considerable attention for prunes.
As for congressional critics, he said: "It could be that they just need to consume a few more prunes."