TORONTO - Ontario could become the first province in Canada to force big chain restaurants, convenience stores and grocery stores to post calorie counts on all their menus in a bid to fight the growing problem of obesity.
The draft legislation would require places that sell meals for immediate consumption to display the calories in food and drinks — including alcohol — right next to the price, Health Minister Deb Matthews said Monday.
Consumers think they're making healthy choices, not realizing that it's actually the opposite, she said.
A raisin bran muffin at Tim Hortons, for example, has more calories than a cheeseburger, Matthews said. Some blended coffee beverages contain about a third of the calories adults are supposed to consume in a day.
"I think when people start to realize that, they'll make different choices, and the restaurants will also make different choices — they'll rethink what's on their menu and what's in their recipes," she said.
The United States will soon move ahead with similar rules for chain restaurants across that country, Matthews said.
Ontario would require them to also post a statement about daily caloric requirements to put the numbers in context, she said. The rules would only apply to businesses that belong to a chain with 20 or more locations in the province.
But they wouldn't have to display the sodium content, which some experts argue is equally important because it's associated with serious illnesses such as heart disease.
Matthews said the draft law can be changed in the future, but right now, it's about making things easier for consumers.
"I think by adding calories right up there with the price, that's important information that addresses the primary motivation behind this," she said.
"I just worry about information overload that will result in it being ignored."
She said public health inspectors would have the authority to enforce the rules and issue fines, which would range from $500 to $10,000.
But the cost of obesity for Ontario is much higher, accounting for about $1.6 billion a year in direct health-care expenditures, Matthews said.
Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years, taking years off kids' lives and taxing an already strained health-care system, said Mark Holland of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.
The Progressive Conservatives point out that many big restaurant chains already provide nutritional information on their websites, brochures, tray liners and posters.
"Some people have said that this is really a solution in search of a problem, that we're dealing with a situation that's already been dealt with," health critic Christine Elliott said in the legislature.
But voluntary measures haven't been successful, Holland said. It's difficult for parents to do the research when they're eating out with their children.
"You don't say, 'Hey kids, just pause, I've got to go on the Internet and check the calories.' It doesn't happen," he said.
"This is not a realistic scenario."
While the minority Liberals stressed the importance of passing the legislation as quickly as possible, they didn't back a similar private member's bill that has already been introduced by a New Democrat and passed second reading last week.
NDP health critic France Gelinas, who has championed the cause for years and brought forward several bills, said the government legislation falls short.
Her proposal would have applied to restaurants with five locations with gross sales of $5 million, she said. It would have also required restaurants to flag sodium content.
"I have been talking about this and the NDP has been talking about this for six long years," she said.
"Do I look forward to the day where I will go into a fast-food outlet and there will be the calories? Yes, the sooner the better. I can't wait."
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