July 25th, 2008 | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Politics, Multnomah County

MultCo Calorie Rule Looking Wobbly After Restaurant Lobby Steps In (Updated with ORA Comment)

     
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Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen's effort to force chain restaurants to provide calorie counts on their menus may tank next week after the Oregon Restaurant Association pressured other commissioners to withhold their support.

In emails obtained by WW, commissioners Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey both say they do not support Cogen's proposed rule, which is scheduled for a vote next Thursday, July 31.

"There are a number of reasons, but most importantly, I believe the county is in a crisis mode and all of our energy should be focused on the Cascadia issue, understanding and finding sustainable funding for the Wapato plan, and solving the East County Justice Center issue," Rojo de Steffey writes in an email to Cogen dated July 23.

As first reported in WW, Cogen's proposed rule would require restaurants and coffee shops with 15 or more stores nationwide to display calorie counts in Multnomah County on menus or sign boards for each regular menu item, including beverages. Besides calories, menus would state that information on carbs, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium is available on request.

Cogen's spokeswoman, Karol Collymore, says Rojo de Steffey supported the proposed rule before meeting with a lobbyist from the powerful Oregon Restaurant Association last week.

Rojo de Steffey, a former board member for the American Heart Association, had left the office by 3 pm on Friday and did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Lobbyist Bill Perry confirmed that he and other officials from the ORA met with Naito and Cogen on Thursday and Rojo de Steffey last week. He says he hopes to meet with Commissioner Lonnie Roberts before next week's vote.

Naito tells WW she made up her mind to oppose the measure before meeting Perry. She sent an email to Cogen and the other commissioners on Wednesday saying she was against it.

Naito says she supports giving consumers more information, but that requiring calorie counts is more appropriate to do on a state level. She says she'll introduce a substitute resolution urging the state to look at doing so.

The twist is that Cogen's plan grew out of Naito's failed bid to ban trans fat from Multnomah County restaurants in 2006. But she says it's no contradiction that she's opposing Cogen's measure now.

"It's a very different issue," Naito says. "Artificial trans fats — I consider it like a toxic substance that shouldn't be in food at all."

Collymore says Cogen has the backing of Chairman Ted Wheeler, whose office did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Without Naito and Rojo de Steffey's support, the swing vote on the five-member board will be Roberts, who says he's undecided after Naito and Rojo de Steffey came to his office to discuss their opposition to the measure.

"At first I thought, yeah, why not. And then I started thinking about it, and I said wait a minute," Roberts says. "What's next? We keep trying to regulate and control. I understand it's needed, but these (restaurants) are in business, and what's it going to do to them?"
 
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