News & Updates

Healthy Eating Laws - Coming Soon to an Ontario Restaurant Near You!

April 12, 2014

Potentially big developments for the franchised restaurant sector as political parties are lining up to propose new laws relating to healthy eating.

Last month, the Ontario Minister of Health sponsored a bill entitled Making Healthier Choices Act, 2014 which, if passed, would require restaurant chains in Ontario with 20 or more locations to display the caloric content of their menu items. The bill specifically refers to franchisors so that there is no ambiguity regarding the application of the bill to individual franchised units. The bill requires anybody who operates a business that is subject to the proposed law to display the number of calories of every food or drink item on each menu or place where a list of those items is displayed.

This requirement would also apply to every food or drink item, whether or not they are sold from the actual restaurant premises, and separate display requirements also apply to combo meals. The bill would also reserve inspection rights for the Ministry, and offences would carry penalties of up to $1,000 per day for individual offenders, and up to $10,000 per day for corporate offenders.

In addition, the Ontario NDP proposed a bill in late 2013 which would similarly require the posting of caloric counts and notices of high sodium on all menu items, but which would apply to chains of five units or more with a gross annual revenue of over $5 million.

First, let me say that I applaud any effort that aims to help our “growing” population make healthier eating choices (and I’m not just saying that because my wife is a dietitian!). At this point, it is trite to repeat the dangers associated with the rising obesity rate in Canada, so whatever can be done to control that issue, the better. And I believe I can speak on behalf of at least a few large foodservice operators who are looking forward to these legislative changes – some brands have worse reputations than others for the quality and fattiness of their food items, and I know they are eager to notify the public that their menu (while perhaps not exactly nutritious) is not as bad as we have been led to believe.

But I do also reserve a little bit of skepticism regarding the actual impact that laws of this nature may be able to achieve. For anyone interested in the topic of restaurants being mandated to display health information, it would not take long to discover that there are as many studies supporting the position that notices like these can sway customers’ dietary choices as there are studies which reveal there is no effect at all.

I am no expert in that department, but I can predict a scenario where the compliance costs to the restaurant industry will far outweigh the number of people who change their eating habits as a result. Perhaps I am assuming too much, but I tend to believe that most of us who eat at certain restaurants (be they fast-food, casual or full-service) know when we sit down that we are likely consuming more bad stuff than our doctors would recommend. Few, if any, of us would order French fries with a belief that they might be healthy for us. It is hard to imagine a reality where the posting of the caloric count of that menu item might change my mind to order it.

I also echo the position of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, which supports initiatives promoting healthy eating choices but which believe this objective may be better realized and with less burdensome compliance costs to the industry if Ontario followed the lead of B.C. and Alberta’s “Informed Dining” program. Under that program, participating restaurants are required to display nutritional information in a variety of places (including online), without having to incur the cost of modifying their menu boards. Of course, the operative word there is “participating”, as the Informed Dining program is entirely voluntary.

Attempts to regulate the publicity of nutritional information is not news, as the United States has been circling these requirements at a federal and state level for some time.

I, for one, am eager to see not whether a healthy eating choice law gets passed in Ontario (as it seems likely it will), but rather which law will get passed.

Tags: Franchising