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County requires calories on menu

ARTHUR GREGG SULZBERGER, The Oregonian -- The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), August 1, 2008 Friday Sunrise Edition

Multnomah County diners may soon learn more than they ever wanted to know about their morning pastry, fast-food lunch break or spaghetti Alfredo dinner.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday to require big chain restaurants and coffee shops to list calorie counts on menus and ordering boards starting next year.

The decision came after a 5 1/2-hour hearing before a rare full house marked by passionate testimony, extensive debate over whether the county or state should lead the way on menu labeling and even an under-the-radar attempt to ban trans fats.

By the end of the meeting, stomachs were growling, but Commissioner Jeff Cogen had won the hard-fought tug of war.

"I believe people have a right to know what they eat," Cogen said.

The measure is aimed at combating rising obesity rates by giving customers the information to make healthier ordering decisions at a time when Americans are increasingly turning to restaurants for their meals.

The rule would affect about 90 chains in the county --those with more than 15 outlets nationwide, including everything from Popeyes to Shari's to Outback Steakhouse.

Portland would become the fourth major city to impose menu listing, along with New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Customers also could request additional nutritional information, such as fat, sodium and carbohydrate content for all regular menu items.

Graciela Chavez was one of more than two dozen people who supported the proposal. Coming from a family with a history of obesity problems and diabetes, Chavez said, she and her two children still frequently turn to fast-food restaurants for their meals.

"I believe if we had nutrition information, we would be able to make better decisions and be mindful of eating healthy," she said.

A series of dietitians, doctors and other health experts testified that the proposal was a key step toward fighting obesity.

But Alan Shaffer, who owns a struggling Wingstop franchise on Southeast 82nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard in Portland, was one of six people to testify against the rule.

"I don't think it's fair that I have to put this information on the board when my local competitors don't," he said. "That's not a level playing field."

Dueling senators

The meeting featured a battle of wills between Cogen and Commissioner Lisa Naito, who led the push to kill the measure and then later tried to expand it significantly.

The commissioners brought in a tag team of state legislators, Sen. Margaret Carter and Rep. Tina Kotek, both Portland Democrats, to square off. The lawmakers said they would join forces to lead the push for a statewide measure requiring nutritional labeling at chain restaurants next year.

Carter, appearing at Naito's request, urged the county to wait for the state to lead the way. Kotek, appearing at Cogen's request, said county action would boost the chances of a statewide measure, an approach also backed by state epidemiologist Mel Kohn.

"Sometimes we need to have energy at the county level to move something at the statewide level," Kotek said. "If you wait for us to do it, it might be a couple of years."

Cogen and Naito aggressively lobbied Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, a conservative former state legislator who emerged in the last week as the swing vote. Roberts was ultimately swayed by an outpouring of nearly 500 e-mails supporting the regulation with only a handful in opposition.

Unable to stop the vote, Naito unveiled nine hastily crafted amendments she had written that morning to try to shape the rule more to her liking.

She tried unsuccessfully to expand the rule to include prepared food in schools, health care facilities and grocery stores. As the room emptied out toward the end of the meeting, Naito offered a final amendment proposing to include a countywide ban of using trans fats in any restaurant.

Cogen accused Naito of trying to slip in a major policy decision without a public debate, pointing out that the board had voted down her trans fat proposal last year. The amendment failed.

After citing a long list of concerns about the final product, Naito voted in favor of the rule.

Lone opponent

Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey cast the lone no vote. "We're targeting a few fast-food restaurants, we're not targeting all restaurants," she said. "That's not fair."

The board's vote isn't a final decision, rather a policy direction to the county's health department, which will spend two months working out the details. Barring an unexpected reversal, the board will officially adopt that ordinance later this year. The rule would go into effect in January, with a six-month grace period for restaurants to comply.

In the meantime, diet-conscious consumers can already find nutrition information at many of the affected chains. Some provide it online, others in pamphlets or posters in the restaurants, though few put it in a place where customers can see it as they order.

A lawyer for McDonald's waved tray liners and burger wrappers that the fast-food giant now uses to list nutrition information. "I wonder how many people read it and care about it, but it's there," he told commissioners.

Shannon Hennrich said she actually had read that information when she stopped at McDonald's for dinner the previous night but it was too little, too late. "I order it, then I read about it."

Arthur Sulzberger: 503-221-8330;



Pretty Mary K said...

oh geez i can never go out to eat ever again. or at least not after they start doing this...because i am an incessant reader of whatever is in front of me and then i'll just feel bad about it...

wait what am i saying. i don't care. bring on the caloric intake!!! oh wait i'm not helping your cause.


The Thornocks said...

I think that's awesome. I wish they would do that everywhere. I agree that we have a right to know what we're eating! I know that if I had known how many calories were in certain foods before I ordered them, then I wouldn't have ordered them. I think this will push restaurants to start cooking healthier in order to please their customers with the facts. It's a great idea!

Ksenia said...

I think it's a great idea, especially for large, national chains. But just because something has fewer calories does not mean it's more healthy, so including all the ingredients would be nice (though unrealistic, in this situation). This is definitely a great start though, especially for people who are trying to manage or reduce their weight. I hope the no trans fats rule passes eventually as well.