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July 16th, 2008 12:00 am JAMES PITKIN | News Stories

Food Fight

Multnomah County wants chain eateries to provide calorie counts. Restaurateurs say hold the meddling.

SNACK ATTACK: Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen takes on fast-food chains.
IMAGE: Lukas Ketner

Portland’s dual reputations as a food-lover’s mecca and a bastion for progressive politics may soon be married on menus across the city.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is set to vote July 31 on a proposal by Commissioner Jeff Cogen and the county health department requiring chain restaurants to put calorie counts on menus.

The premise: Reading that your grande peppermint white-chocolate mocha packs 530 calories, or that your ultimate bacon cheeseburger has 1,060, will scare diners into eating and drinking healthier.

But some restaurateurs and industry lobbyists are already throwing dishes, saying the rules are intrusive, pose too big a burden, and are misguided when the county can’t even repair the Sellwood Bridge.

“They’re trying to overdeliver and get involved with something that they really shouldn’t,” says Tracy Marks, general manager of Hilton Portland.

The proposed rule would require restaurants and coffee shops operating in Multnomah County with 15 or more stores nationwide to display calorie counts on menus or sign boards beside each regular menu item, including beverages. The rule, which would go into effect in early 2009, would exempt temporary items.

Besides calories, menus would state that information on carbs, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium is available on request. The rule–written after nine months of meetings with restaurant owners, health officials and dieticians–would apply only to chain restaurants because the costs of complying are less of a burden for them, Cogen contends.

If approved by the five-member Board of Commissioners, which doubles as the local public health authority, the rule would put Portland in step with New York City, San Francisco and Seattle’s King County, which all have approved similar rules.

Cogen’s plan grew out of Commissioner Lisa Naito’s failed bid to ban trans fats, as New York City did (see “No Fries for You,” WW, Oct. 25, 2006). The board backed down from Naito’s proposal last year out of concern the county lacked the authority and resources to enforce it. Instead, commissioners ordered the health department to pursue public education, and Cogen worked with officials there to craft the proposed rules.

Cogen says he’s against banning foods or putting a moratorium on new fast-food restaurants, as the Los Angeles city council has proposed doing.

“What this is about is giving people information so they can make well-informed choices,” says Cogen, who owned the Portland Pretzel Co. downtown before going into politics. “To me, that’s an appropriate compromise, and it’s the right role for us to play.”

The cash-strapped county has been buffeted with financial troubles—looking for funds to open Wapato Jail, dismantling the wobbly Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, and slashing the sheriff’s budget. But Cogen insists counting calories should be a priority.

“America is currently in a health crisis,” says Cogen, who’s 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds. “One of the county’s core responsibilities is protecting public health. This is squarely addressing that problem.”

According to an initial count by the health department, the rules will affect 516 of the 2,834 restaurants in the county, or more than one in six. Besides the obvious fast-food franchises, they include Seattle-based Starbucks and the locally owned Pizza Schmizza, McMenamins and Burgerville chains.

About half of chain restaurants already provide nutrition information on request. Most have stores in San Francisco or Seattle and will need to design new menus that can also be used here.

But Hilton manager Marks says the cost will be high—especially for restaurants that often change their menu.

“That’s asking too much of small business to try and solve a problem that is not the restaurateurs’ anyway,” he says. “There’s personal responsibility when it comes to obesity, too. I work out every day.”

Bill Perry, a lobbyist for the Oregon Restaurant Association, says he’ll work to stop the rules in private meetings with commissioners before the July 31 vote.

If such rules go into effect, Perry says, they should be statewide to avoid confusing consumers. Cogen agrees, saying he hopes the county’s initiative will prompt the state to take action, too, as it did after the county banned workplace smoking in 2000.

But in a larger sense, Perry says, putting calorie counts on menus may do nothing to change behavior. When certain dishes are labeled as healthy on menus, he says, sales go down because people think they lack flavor.

“I just think there’s a better way to handle it,” Perry says. “We need to do something about the obesity problem, but are calorie counts going to achieve that goal? It’s hard to make a case that it’s going to help.”

Chuck Bloom agrees. Munching on three crunchy Taco Supremes (total calories: 630) at a Taco Bell on West Burnside Street, the 39-year-old painter says he’d be unlikely to make other choices if calories were on display.

“If I cared about that, I wouldn’t be coming to Taco Bell,” he says. “I just go to fast food when I’m really starving, and I’m not gonna pay attention.”

FACT: According to the county health department, two-thirds of adults in Multnomah County are overweight or obese, as calculated using a body mass index. (Check out this Body Mass Index calculator to find out if you’re considered overweight, or obese.)
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