Toronto's senior public health official says the province should make restaurants display how much sodium and how many calories are in their meals, and if the province won't adapt the regulations, the city should pass its own bylaw.
Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health, has released a new report calling on restaurants to label menus clearly.
"We think it's time people in Ontario have the opportunity to know what it is they are eating," he said in an interview.
According to the report, more and more Torontonians are eating out and many restaurant meals contain high levels of sodium and calories. But it can be hard to guess the exact content. For example, many salads have more calories than hamburgers.
"People can't really tell," says Dr. McKeown. "There are some restaurant meals that give you a whole day's worth of sodium."
The proposed regulations would require larger chain restaurants to list calorie and sodium values on the menu or menu board in the same font size as the price. They would apply to chains with 10 or more outlets nationwide or at least $10-million in gross annual revenue.
The regulations would not apply to smaller businesses but Dr. McKeown says Toronto Public Health will work with them on a voluntary basis to "level the playing field."
According to Dr. McKeown's report, almost half of Torontonians are overweight or obese. Canadians also consume more than twice the recommended daily level of sodium. High sodium is associated with high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.
Toronto would be the first city in Canada to adopt mandatory menu labelling. But New York has a similar system, which has been successful according to the report. B.C. has a voluntary program.
Stephanie Jones, Ontario vice-president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said she agrees with the principle of providing more nutritional information to consumers. But her organization is advocating that Toronto adopt the BC model, called Informed Dining.
Ms. Jones praises the B.C. program's flexibility, which allows for some leeway in how restaurants present nutritional information.
"It is voluntary to become part of Informed Dining, but once you become part of the program there is a certain amount of information that must be there," she says. This includes information on fibre, fat and cholesterol as well as sodium and calories. It does not require that the information be posted on the menu.
Ms. Jones says she would like to see a consistent model across the country.
Over 25 brands including A&W and Little Caesars participate in the B.C. program, which she calls "the gold standard."
"People need to get educated about Informed Dining before they make assumptions about whether it will or will not work,"she said
But Dr. McKeown said it's important not to provide people with too much information.
"When you give people a lot of information and it's not on the menu they won't look at it. It's a lot more effective to have a limited amount of information right there in front of you as you are making the decision."
He said that evidence from the U.S. and elsewhere shows that labelling encourages people to make healthier choices and restaurants to make their recipes healthier.
Ontario Minister of Health Deb Matthews said a government report released in March did not recommend labelling sodium content.
"One of the Healthy Kids' panel recommendations was that we post the calories. They actually said no to sodium, it's too complicated, they want to make it easy for people to understand."
She said the government is looking closely at the recommendations of the Healthy Kids' panel. "We know that we've got a lot of work to do to in order to have our kids growing up in as healthy a place as it possibly can be. That was one of the recommendations that we're taking very seriously."
Councillor Gord Perks agrees with the report and said that if the city cannot get agreement from the province, it should act on its own.
"Just like the pesticide bylaw, they will figure out how smart we are and they will copy us."
"We in Ontario are starting to face a real obesity crisis," he said, noting that when shoppers go to a supermarket, they can check labels for the nutritional content of what they are buying. "Why can't we get that same information when we are eating in a restaurant?"
With files from Elizabeth Church and Adrian Morrow