July 31st, 2008 | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Multnomah County

Cogen Wins the Food Fight: MultCo Approves Menu Rule

     
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After a marathon session and some bizarre political dance moves, Multnomah County commissioners today agreed to make chain restaurants provide calorie counts on menus.

It was a clear victory for Jeff Cogen, the newbie commissioner who spearheaded the rule.

What it means for outgoing Commissioner Lisa Naito's legacy is open for debate. The longest-serving commissioner, term-limited and leaving office in January, went into the meeting proposing the county do nothing and leave it up to the state to take action.

When that proposal tanked, she puzzled many in the room by reversing herself and trying instead to expand the scope of Cogen's own rule — including an attempt to revive a trans-fat ban Naito failed to push through last year.

After a five-and-a-half-hour session, most of Naito's amendments to Cogen's bill made it in — her attempt at reviving a trans-fat ban was shot down — and the board finally approved the measure by a vote of 4-1.

Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey was the sole dissenting vote.

"I'm gonna vote no even though I believe we need to do this," she said. Among other concerns, she said the rule is not fair because it targets only restaurants with 15 or more stores nationwide.

As first reported in WW, the rule requires restaurants and coffee shops to display calorie counts beside each regular menu item, including beverages. Besides calories, menus must state that information on carbs, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium is available on request. It's due to go into effect in early 2009.

Cogen told WW the county received more than 400 emails on the proposed rule in recent weeks, more than on any other issue in the past two years. Fewer than 10 of those were opposed, he said.

Other than county staffers, nearly 30 people testified at the hearing, from parents to dieticians to officials from the American Heart Association. The testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the rule.

Only five spoke against it: a McDonalds lobbyist, an Oregon Restaurant Association lobbyist, officials from Shari's and Burgerville, and Alan Shaffer, who owns a Wing Stop franchise in Southeast Portland.

"It's not a level playing field at all," Shaffer said. "I'm struggling to get by, and you're going to make me spend more money."

State Rep. Tina Kotek (D-North Portland) praised the county's effort and said it would help her pass a similar statewide rule in the 2009 session.

"You can set the tone. You can move this," Kotek said. "Though I love the Legislature, if you wait for us to do it, it might take a couple of years."

But State Sen. Margaret Carter (D-North Portland) agreed with Naito and said the county's rule would hamper her efforts to push a rule through the Leg. Carter said it would send a message to the rest of the state that nutrition is Portland's issue, not theirs.

Naito's proposal to merely recommend that the state take up the issue went down 3-2, with Naito and Rojo de Steffey voting for it.

Going into the meeting, Chairman Ted Wheeler was assumed to side with Cogen on the issue. Naito and Rojo de Steffey had indicated they opposed the rule. That left Commissioner Lonnie Roberts as the swing vote.

But by Wednesday afternoon the buzz was that Roberts had swung to Cogen's camp.

Facing defeat, Naito told the audience that at 7 am Thursday — two hours before the meeting — she wrote nine amendments to the proposed rule that Cogen and the county Health Department had spent nine months crafting with the help of dieticians, public-health officials and restaurant owners.

Naito said she was criticized for introducing the amendments last-minute. But she said the proposed rule was floated by Cogen's office only 10 days before.

Five of Naito's amendments passed, but none of them made substantial changes to the rule.

Curiously, after initially backing what would likely have been a much weaker state requirement, some of Naito's amendments tried to beef up Cogen's rule. Naito wanted to include schools, licensed health-care facilities, grocery stores and department stores, but none of those amendments was approved by the board.

Most striking was her attempt to bring back a county-wide ban on trans-fats. The board dropped Naito's first try at doing so last year, after the county Health Department advised against it.

"I don't think slipping it in as an amendment to this is appropriate public policymaking," Cogen said.

In the end the board rejected the trans-fat ban by a vote of 3-2, with Naito and Rojo de Steffey in favor.

 
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