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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers pushes ‘common sense’ nutrition bill at Spokane Valley pizzeria

U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, learns to form a pizza crust from Domino’s area manager Sarah Anderson on Thursday at a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in Spokane Valley. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers wants federal nutrition labeling rules for small businesses to be easy as pie.

Pizza pie.

“We’re not debating whether or not calorie information will be included,” McMorris Rodgers said at a Domino’s restaurant in Spokane Valley on Thursday, after placing her own hand-tossed pizza in the oven. “It is a matter of allowing for common sense ways to fulfill the responsibilities.”

Pizza restaurants in particular have been resistant to Food and Drug Administration rules requiring menus to be posted containing detailed calorie information. Ashley Coneff, manager of legislative affairs for the Domino’s chain, said that requirement doesn’t make sense for take-out pizza chains, where more than 90 percent of orders are placed online or by phone call and different combinations of crust, toppings and cheese lead to vastly different calorie counts.

“Pizza is about the most customizable type of food there is,” Coneff said Thursday at the Spokane Valley location, adding that there are more than 34 million ways to order a pizza at Domino’s.

McMorris Rodgers is the lead sponsor of a bill making its way through Congress that would grant businesses such as Domino’s more flexibility in posting nutritional information. The company already posts a calorie calculator on its website, a tool that doesn’t meet the requirements set forth by the FDA, store officials said.

Under the McMorris Rodgers bill, the online calorie counter would be sufficient to meet FDA standards.

As it is now, failure to meet the proposed rules could result in criminal charges.

Delis and convenience stores also have voiced concerns about the new rules. They apply to businesses with more than 20 locations, though businesses like Domino’s are run by franchisees who will eat the costs of implementing the FDA’s rules.

“We’re not against the bill,” said Jim Hightower, who owns Domino’s franchises in Idaho. “I like the bill. I like to be able to see the calorie counts at restaurants.”

But with pizza, he said, costs for individual stores to post complicated explainers of nutritional information could total between $5,000 and $10,000 annually, and would need to be changed every time there’s a menu switch or the company uses a new supplier.

“It would be a huge burden,” Hightower said.

But not all franchisers of fatty foods agree the FDA’s directives should change.

At a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., last week, a spokeswoman representing the company that owns Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores said they supported the proposed regulations. The businesses had spent years trying to create different nutrition information materials to comply with standards created by a multitude of local governments, said Karen Raskopf of Dunkin Brands, Inc.

“We have spent the last year figuring out how to label our products, to make nutritional information available to our consumers,” Raskopf testified. “I feel all of us can do the same thing.”

McMorris Rodgers said opposition to her bill mainly came from industries whose menus wouldn’t present as much of a problem when adding nutritional labels.

“Those that testified in favor, they have one menu in all their stores, and I think that they’re not taking into consideration maybe some of the variables that are in these other locations,” she said.

In addition to Dunkin’s opposition, a representative of the Center for Science in the Public Interest testified against McMorris Rodgers’ bill, with a letter in tow from dozens of agencies and medical professionals that said deviation from the FDA rules would continue to add to the obesity problem in the United States.

In addition to providing more options for posting nutritional facts, McMorris Rodgers’ bill would exempt from the labeling standard businesses whose food sales make up less than half their revenue. That would include most movie theaters, who are offering a greater variety of food service options every day, bill opponents said.

Pizza companies have organized to modify the FDA rules and made significant contributions to campaigns to back their legislative priorities. A study conducted by the watchdog nonpartisan group The Center for Responsive Politics found that $1.5 million was given in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles to politicians by pizza companies, with most of that money coming from industry leader Pizza Hut.

McMorris Rodgers received the fifth-most money of any legislator from the so-called pizza lobby over the past two election cycles, the report showed, totaling $14,600. That included a $500 donation from Lynn Liddle, a Domino’s executive and the chairwoman of the American Pizza Community, a political action committee that lobbies on behalf of the industry in Washington.

McMorris Rodgers downplayed the significance of those contributions in her push for less restrictive regulations.

“When they support me, they are supporting what I stand for,” she said.

The bill was passed through a subcommittee by voice vote, and should receive a full committee hearing before the end of the year, McMorris Rodgers said.