Local pizza purveyors push Long on menu-labeling bill

Posted on August 27, 2015 21:01 pm CDT

Springfield News-Leader
By: Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – Two Springfield pizza kings served up some politics with their pies Tuesday, pressing Rep. Billy Long to support a bill aimed at weakening new calorie-count disclosure rules.

At an event designed to build support for the legislation, Art Hurteau and Marty Prather, who co-own 13 Domino’s pizza franchises in the Springfield area, hosted Long at their Bolivar restaurant — showing the Springfield Republican how to make pizza and lobbying him on the proposal.

The bill would exempt pizzerias from federal rules that will require chain restaurants and certain other food retailers to display calorie information on their in-store menu boards. Congress included the calorie count mandate in the Affordable Care Act, part of a broader effort to tackle the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

Public health advocates say the rules — issued last fall and set to take effect in 2016 — will help consumers make more informed choices about their diet and health. But pizzeria owners said they will be uniquely burdened by the rules because each additional pizza topping changes the total calorie count and most of their customers don’t come into their stores to order.

The two sides are engaged in a fierce lobbying battle over the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which would loosen the rules for pizzerias and other food vendors. The bill is pending before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, which held a June hearing on the issue. Long serves on that panel, which could vote on the measure when Congress returns next month.

At the Bolivar event, Long made a pizza with black olives, ham, and pepperoni and sounded sympathetic to the Domino’s-backed legislation. But Hurteau said Long did not explicitly endorse the measure or agree to co-sponsor it (nor did he ask for the calorie count on his own pie).

In written responses to questions from the News-Leader, Long said he plans to be “heavily involved” in shaping the bill and will be “looking for common-sense provisions that are feasible and workable.”

He said he won’t decide how to vote until he sees the final product.

Pizza industry advocates say they don’t want to deny information to anyone and are not seeking an exemption from the rules. They want to provide the calorie count data online — where they say they could give more accurate calorie calculations and where a growing number of their consumers go to order now anyway.

“We’re not like McDonald’s, where you order a set thing and you can easily put the calorie” information on a menu board, said Hurteau. “We have about 34 million different combinations of possible calorie counts.”

Long echoed that argument in his statement.

“There is an infinite number of ways to build a pizza, which causes a unique set of concerns in the proper listing of nutritional values,” Long said. “Whatever rule is adopted needs to take that into consideration.”

Hurteau said it would cost him and his business partner $5,000 per store to put the calorie ranges on their in-store boards — and only about one-third of their customers would see it. That’s how many currently come into the store to order pizza, he said, with others ordering by phone or online.

“We are all in favor of providing this information to our customers,” said Ashley Coneff, Domino’s manager of legislative affairs. “We just want to do it in a way that makes sense for both the customers and the small business owners.”

The FDA rules would not require pizza restaurants to list every possible combination; they would need to list standard menu items and provide a reasonable range for the total calories.

“It’s hard to understand why pizza restaurants deserve a special exemption from listing calories on their in-store menus,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the subcommittee at the June hearing. The center is a nutrition and food-safety advocacy group.

Wootan noted that pizza, along with being “an American staple,” is the fifth largest source of calories in Americans’ diets. Pizza vendors should not be able to deny nutrition information to their in-store customers, she said.

The fate of the bill is unclear. It has bipartisan support and the backing of some GOP leaders.

Coneff said the pizza chain is looking at “anything and everything” to build support for the bill. Wooing Long is an important part of their legislative strategy, she said, because he sits on the committee with jurisdiction over the bill.

“He has not co-sponsored (the bill), but that’s our goal,” she said.

Long’s visit to the Bolivar Domino’s was one of several such events organized by the company in recent weeks, including pizza-making photo-ops with lawmakers in Michigan, Texas and Houston.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than one-third of American adults and 17 percent of children are obese. Obese people are more likely to experience heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., noted at the June hearing that the health care costs of obesity are projected to be $344 billion by 2018. “Even if you don’t care about diabetes and all the other related things to obesity, we ought to be caring about what it costs our health care systems to treat obesity,” she said.

She dismissed the pizza industry’s arguments as “silly” and said the menu-labeling requirements are simple and doable. Besides, she said, consumers want this kind of information.

“I don’t know a woman who doesn’t look at the calories on food that we’re buying,” Schakowsky said. “We all should.”

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