Opinion: Menu Labelling

Menu labels

Gov’t Committee MPPs Vote to Require Calories on Chain Restaurant Menus by January 1, 2017, Dismiss Expert and Public Calls for Sodium Disclosure

Bill Jeffery, LLB, National Coordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest made this comment on MPPs’ clause-by-clause votes on Bill 45, Making Healthier Choices Act (concerning tobacco control and restaurant menu labelling) in the Legislature’s Standing Committee on General Government.

Liberal MPPs have not strayed from their opposition to sodium labelling since the Deputy Premier announced plans to mandate calorie labelling with a Vice-President of McDonald’s Canada in October 2013.  MPPs voted to mandate calorie labelling, but repeatedly rejected calls for sodium labelling by experts and health groups.  Liberal MPPs, who hold a majority of votes on the Committee, claimed that labelling experts on its Healthy Kids Panel advised the Government that providing sodium information would provide so much detail that consumers would be overwhelmed and too confused to even use calorie information.  According to biographies of Panel members,both food labelling experts represent companies that are affected by the bill: employees of Loblaw and Food and Consumer Products Canada.

By contrast, more than 40 community group leaders and experts publicly supported sodium labelling or testified before the Committee to that effect, including: Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, the Chair of Nutrition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine who is also a nutrition advisor to the World Health Organization, the President of the World Hypertension League who is also the Heart and Stroke Foundation Research Chair in Hypertension, the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health, and the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.  Government MPPs opposed amendments to:

•       mandate disclosure of sodium levels as soon as possible (proposed amendment #7.1);
•       mandate disclosure of sodium levels by January 2017  (proposed amendment #8);
•       allow municipalities—described as public health innovators by Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Hon. Jeff Leal—to required additional nutrition information so long as they  do exempt restaurants from providing information that is required by provincial law (proposed amendment #17); and
•       even empanelling and an expert Committee to advise the Minister on whether to require sodium labelling (proposed amendment #19).

MPPs of all parties should call on the Government to strike an expert committee, without financial conflicts of interest, to advise whether to promulgate regulations mandating sodium levels before the calorie-labelling regulations become effective.  The Government’s stated reliance on experts with commercial conflicts of interest should raise alarm bells for Ontarians.  Not a single expert report or study justifying concealing sodium levels was cited by the Healthy Kids Panel, the series of invitation-only Ministry of Health consultation meetings in Toronto in the fall of 2013,  the debates in the legislature since 2009, or legislative committee hearings.

Without sodium disclosures, calorie-labelling may motivate consumes to chose foods that are high or higher in sodium than they would otherwise choose.  Canadians already consume double the recommended amount of sodium, causing upwards of 10,000 premature deaths annually in Canada and heavy use of often government-insured anti-hypertensive drugs.  Health Canada, the World Health Organization, the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, and Public Health Ontario urge people to reduce sodium to reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.  In 2010, premiers and provincial health ministers urged the federal Minister of Health to implement her Sodium Working

Group’s “Sodium Reduction Strategy for Canada,” though provincial governments have responsibilities concerning restaurants and pay the lion’s share of sodium-related health care costs.  More than 82% of Canadians support requiring chains to disclose amount of sodium on menus.  University of Toronto researchers found that sodium levels in main entrees at 65 fast food and sit-down chains are “alarmingly high” (1,011 mg and 1,455 mg, respectively)  and that posting sodium numbers on menus could reduce intake by a whopping 681-1,360 mg per meal.

Large amounts of salt can be added to food by restaurants without consumers’ knowledge.  It is much harder to estimate sodium levels than calories from menu names, pictures, and often even by taste. And sodium levels are predicted to rise if chains trim sugar and fat to ratchet down calorie levels.  Without seeing so on menus, Ontarians won’t know that, for example:

•       McDonald’s Third Pounder Angus Bacon & Cheese Sandwich has nearly triple the amount of sodium (1,920 mg) as the Quarter Pounder Without Cheese (670 mg); and

•       Tim Hortons’ Biscuit, Sausage, Egg, Cheese Breakfast Sandwich has nearly double the sodium (1,130 mg) of the English Muffin with Egg and Cheese (610 mg).

CSPI is an independent health advocacy organization with offices in  Ottawa and Washington. CSPI’s advocacy efforts are financially  supported by approximately  100,000 subscribers to the Canadian  edition of its Nutrition Action Healthletter, on average, one  subscribing household within a one block radius of every Canadian  street corner. CSPI does not accept industry or government funding and  Nutrition Action does not carry advertisements.

To subscribe/unsubscribe to CSPI’s action-alert listserv, visit:  http://list.web.net/lists/listinfo/cspi

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