Healthy Living Minister Jim Rondeau got it wrong. The restaurant industry's so-called "Informed Dining Program," launched in Manitoba earlier this week, is not like nutrition facts on prepackaged foods.
Under the restaurant industry's voluntary plan, menus will only carry a statement inviting customers to ask for a brochure or stand in line to study a much-smaller menu that displays nutrition numbers.
A U.S. study found only six of about 4,000 restaurant customers actually sought-out nutrition brochures and posters before ordering, just over one-tenth of one per cent. Good luck seeing sodium and calorie numbers on a poster that displays hundreds of numbers.
(McDonald's tray-liner shows about 2,000 nutrition numbers.) How many will ferret out a second nutrition menu? And who in Manitoba would drive through a drive-thru twice: first to retrieve the nutrition brochure, then to place an order?
Only a self-serving industry association could cook up such an inefficient way to transmit important calorie and sodium information to customers.
Since 2008, chain restaurant menus in New York City have been required to display at least calorie levels. In a survey of 8,000 restaurant patrons in the Big Apple, at least 15 per cent used calorie counts displayed right on the main menu to choose lower-calorie foods. That effectively informed choice will also pressure chains to make their food healthier to maintain sales.
Informed Dining is only a gloss on the Nutrition Information Program the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association trotted out in 2005 to help derail a federal bill that would have required calorie labelling on menus at chain restaurants Canada-wide. The restaurant industry's lobbying deep-fried that bill. But, by 2010, the United States Congress passed legislation (a few sections in the Obamacare bill) that will soon require all chains with more than 15 outlets countrywide there to post at least calories on menus.
According to World Health Organization estimates, 48,000 Canadians die every year from nutrition-related risk factors. Restaurant fare is generally high but surprisingly widely varying in calorie and sodium levels (which are tough to estimate from product names and pictures) and notoriously short on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
That's why seeing these numbers on the menu is so important.
Politicians in British Columbia and Manitoba have shown themselves to be willing to settle for a demonstrably useless brochure program.
Toronto Public Health is now preparing a bylaw for city council that would oblige big chains to post calories and sodium right on restaurant menus, much like the U.S. law. Toronto officials are sparking a community dialogue about why restaurants refuse to put nutrition information on menus. See http://www.savvydiner.ca/.
And the Ontario legislature will soon pass judgment on an Ontario-wide Healthy Decisions for Healthy Eating Act, like the U.S. law, but including warnings for menu items that are high and very high in sodium. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne supported an earlier version of the bill while she was minister of education.
Protecting public health and medicare depends on provincial and federal politicians being more savvy and less cynical.
Bill Jeffery, LLB. national co-ordinator Centre for Science in the Public Interest, Ottawa.