Weighty debate: Calorie counts on menus

A customer orders at a Burgerville in Portland Friday. A proposed bill that would require all restaurant chains in Oregon with 15 or more stores to post calorie counts on their menus, menu boards and food tags. <BR><I>Associated Press</i>

PORTLAND - A Burgerville cheeseburger sat on its crumpled wrapper alongside a soda - half diet, half real stuff - that was nearly sucked dry. David Benedetti, 52, of Portland, explained the scene: "I'm trying to lose some weight."

He figured the soda set him back about 300 calories. "I bet the small burger is about 400 calories or so."

Total: "About 700 calories or less," he guessed.

And it was a guess. Unlike restaurants in New York City - and soon those in California and Philadelphia - Oregon chains aren't required to post calorie counts, or any sort of nutritional information for that matter, on their menus or menu boards.

As it turned out, Benedetti wasn't far off. His Burgerville meal, according to the chain's Web site, was worth about 500 calories. Still, he wouldn't mind taking the guessing out of eating.

"The more you know about what you're putting in yourself, the better," he said.

Rep. Tina Kotek's sentiment exactly.

The Portland representative is pushing a bill in Salem that would require all restaurant chains doing business in Oregon with 15 or more stores nationwide to post calorie counts on their menus, menu boards and food tags. Her interest, she said, was piqued when Multnomah County passed a similar rule, which goes into effect the first of next year.

"What I'm interested in is, frankly, truth in advertising," Kotek said. "This is about consumer information to make good choices. Healthier choices."

As it happens, about 90 percent of the chains that would be affected by a statewide menu labeling policy are already affected by Multnomah County's policy, according to a county estimate.

Nevertheless, Kotek's bill, which is still in the early stages of its Capitol journey, is getting some pushback from the Oregon Restaurant Association. The biggest disagreement is over where, exactly, nutritional information ought to be placed.

The current methods - online, in brochures, on the back of tray liners - just aren't cutting it for some.

"Truthfully, that's like putting it in the fine print," Benedetti said.

Added Kotek: "How are they going to refer me to their Web site when I'm trying to make a choice about what I'm going to have for dinner?"

In a competing measure the association helped craft, restaurants could put the information on packaging, posters, brochures and various other media. Bill Perry, a lobbyist for the association, says restaurants ought to have some leeway.

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