Restaurants could be forced to post calorie, sodium counts


Would you eat that bacon double cheeseburger if you knew exactly how bad it was for you?

Toronto’s Board of Health thinks not.

On Monday, the board pushed ahead with a plan that would compel chain restaurants to post the calorie and sodium values of every dish as prominently as they currently list the price.

The proposal stems from a report by the city’s top doctor, medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown, which concluded that menu labelling would help diners make healthier choices and could reduce the incidence of obesity and high blood pressure in the city’s population.

According his report, 46 per cent of adult Torontonians are overweight or obese and nearly 24 per cent have high blood pressure. It noted that the nutritional values of many foods are difficult to gauge, with some salads from some popular restaurants containing more calories than hamburgers.

“Studies show that if the information is provided right on the menu, the people see it, and they actually use it to make decisions,” said McKeown after the board voted to adopt his recommendations. “And it might actually urge restaurants to provide somewhat healthier offerings over time.”

Monday’s vote doesn’t mean that the new menu rules will be put into effect any time soon, however. For now, the board is only requesting that the provincial government enact Ontario-wide menu labelling legislation. But if Queen’s Park takes no action by September 1, McKeown will come back to the board with a draft bylaw for council approval.

On his call-in radio show on Sunday, Mayor Rob Ford said he wouldn’t support Dr. McKeown’s recommendations if they come to a council vote.

“I know people are smart enough to know [if] what they’re eating is good or bad for you,” Ford told one caller. “No, I’m not going to put any more restrictions on restaurants. It’s tough enough to keep your head above water and survive in this city.”

The proposed rules would require that calorie and sodium values be listed on a restaurant’s menu or menu board in the same font and size as the price. Smaller eateries wouldn’t be affected – only those with either 10 or more outlets nationwide or a gross annual revenue of at least $10 million.

New York City adopted similar legislation in 2008, and the U.S. federal government followed suit in 2010.

In New York, the rules have had mixed results: a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2011 found that only 15 per cent of customers reported using the nutrition information, but that those who did consumed an average of 106 fewer kilocalories than diners who ignored the calorie counts.

Should either the provincial or municipal government move ahead with making menu labelling the law, they will likely face strong resistance from representatives of the restaurant industry, several of whom were at City Hall Monday to try to dissuade the board from going ahead with the plan.

In his deputation to the board, John Nunziata of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association equated menu labelling to coddling citizens, who he said are perfectly capable of finding information about their food on their own.

“Don’t underestimate the intelligence of people that live in the city of Toronto in terms of what’s good for them and what’s not good for them when they go to a restaurant,” Nunziata said. “All of us know that French fries are not good for you, fried food is not good for you.”

Nunziata also complained that McKeown had not consulted his organization’s members while writing his report, and accused the board of overstepping its authority. He doubted whether the city has the legal ability to enact menu labelling legislation.

But Dr. McKeown countered that his recommendations were well within the board’s mandate.

“It is the Board of Health’s job to try and deal with some of the big health threats we face in the population,” the doctor told reporters. “Things like obesity and associated diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease are the big things that challenge our health as a population. They’re what most of us die of.

“And one important contribution that we can make is making sure that at least people know what they’re eating when they eat out.”



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