PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — 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.
More information = healthier choices?
"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?"
Restaurant association offers alternative
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.
His biggest concern, shared by others at a hearing on the bill earlier this month, was the cost of redesign that comes with working calories into menus and boards.
"You've got to remember that for most restaurants, their menus are their biggest marketing tool," he said. "They spend a lot of money on design."
What's more, Perry said, many customers are less interested in calories than things like carbohydrates, fats and sodium content. That sort of information would have to be on hand, but not necessarily on the menu, under Kotek's legislation.
"Consumers don't react to caloric information," Perry said.
'I'm so starved, I don't care'
Maybe Julie Gray, another Portland Burgerville customer, was a testament to that. She said menu labeling was "excellent." She was all for it. She was also all for her fish and chips. How many calories, did she think, were in what she was about to eat?
"Right now, I'm so starved, I don't care," said Gray, 48. Still, she allowed, "it would be nice to know."
A regular portion of french fries is about 360 calories and each strip of fish is about 100 calories — tartar sauce not included.
A group of health organizations called Upstream Public Health is fighting to put calorie counts on menus. The group cites surveys from New York City that show 82 percent of diners reporting that nutrition information affects the way they eat.
"What we're hearing is that this is important to (consumers)," said Raquel Bournhonesque, a project director for the organization. "They want to see menu labeling on boards."
There has been some compromise so far in this back and forth. Advocates for labeling are allowing an amendment to increase the time an item can be sold before a restaurant must post its calories. They also agreed to increase the number of stores before a chain must participate from 10 to 15 nationally.
"We really have tried hard to make this business-friendly," Bournhonesque said. But the bottom line is "consumer benefit outweighs the minimal cost to chain restaurants."
Back at Burgerville a group of friends crowded around a table.
"I think it's a cool idea," said 17-year-old James Lennox of Scappoose.
"I think it's a great idea," said Annie Alexander, also 17 and also of Scappoose.
"If you're trying to eat right ..." Lennox began.
"... it would be so much easier," Alexander finished.
For the record, they weren't eating, right or otherwise.
"I think if you're trying to eat right, you don't go to McDonald's," shot back 18-year-old Tim Dowell, also of Scappoose.
He was eating: Chicken strips (340 calories for 5 pieces). Fries (360 calories for a regular). A chocolate milkshake (790 calories for 16 ounces).
Dowell thought about the calories for a minute: "This is the first thing I've eaten today."