Ontario is poised to become the first province in the country to force chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, a move the restaurant industry is warning could confuse customers and pose a challenge for companies that operate nationwide.
Deb Matthews, the province's minister of health and long-term care, introduced legislation on Monday that would compel chains with 20 locations or more in the province to print the number of calories next to each item, including alcohol, either in a fold-up menu or on a menu board.
Grocery and convenience store chains would also be subject to the law, which would carry a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine for corporations that break the rules more than once.
"We have a very serious problem," Ms. Matthews said in an interview. "Our rates of childhood obesity are high and growing higher. We simply must invest now in healthier kids so that we'll have a more sustainable health care system going forward."
There is broad agreement that Canada should do more to reduce obesity and its burden on health care budgets. Ontario, for instance, spent $4.5-billion in 2012 caring for people struggling with their weight.
However, there is less consensus on how governments and public health authorities can persuade people to make healthier food choices.
Research on calorie-posting has produced mixed results, including a 2009 study that found customers of four fast-food chains in New York City actually bought food with slightly more calories than average after the city made calorie posting mandatory.
The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association argues posting calorie counts is too simplistic and potentially confusing.
"There could be 10,000 ways to make a pizza. How do you put that out there?" said James Rilett, the CRFA's vice-president for Ontario. "It's not simply just stick a number up there and people will understand it."
Diners would be better off consulting the websites and smartphone apps of 17 large chains, including fast food giants McDonald's, Harvey's and Dairy Queen, that have already agreed to provide detailed nutritional information online and in brochures and posters on site, he added.
The 17 chains reached a voluntary agreement with British Columbia – which had toyed with mandatory posting – to make calorie counts and 13 other nutritional figures publicly available, an approach they have promised to adopt across the country by year's end.
Ms. Matthews, who announced her intention to introduce a calorie-count bill last fall, responded that people need calorie information when they order. "It just doesn't cut it in terms of access to information if it's online, if it's not readily available."
The bill proposes posting calories alone, but the minister said she is open to adding information about sodium, trans fats, sugars or other contents when the law is reviewed in three years.
In a private member's bill, the NDP had proposed posting a red flag for products high in sodium.
France Gélinas, the party's health critic, said she will continue to push for a sodium warning to be added to the bill, which would need the support of the NDP or the Progressive Conservatives to pass the minority legislature before a widely expected spring election.
"I want this issue to happen. How will it happen? Through my bill, through her bill? I have no idea, but I don't give up easy," Ms. Gélinas said.
If the bill passes, the government would aim to enact the new rules by Jan. 1, 2015, and restaurants would have six months to comply.
With a report from The Canadian Press