A private member’s bill which would make significant changes to nutrition regulation in Ontario is currently before the provincial Standing Committee on Social Policy. Bill 156, also known as the Healthy Decisions for Healthy Eating Act, has passed first and second reading in the Legislative Assembly. The bill’s aim is twofold: to ensure that consumers are able to make well-informed decisions when purchasing food in restaurants and to restrict the amount of trans fats in restaurant menu items.

Specifically, the proposed new law would require restaurant operators to post detailed calorie information for all food and beverage items sold from the restaurant’s premises. This information would be required to be posted either on the menu, or on a display board adjacent to the price, or on a tag attached to the individual item. This calorie information can not be in a font size smaller than the font size used for the price.

Regarding the proposed restrictions on trans fats, two standards are to be applied depending upon the presence of certain ingredients in the food items. For foods, sauces, spreads, garnishes, or condiments, the trans fat content is to be restricted to 2% of the total fat content. Essentially, this means that restaurants will have to ensure that any margarine, oil or shortening used in preparing these items has a trans fat content of 2% or less. For foods, drinks or other items containing partially hydrogenated oils, the trans fat content is to be restricted to 5% of the total fat content. Foods which contain trans fats only from “naturally occurring sources” will be exempt from these restrictions.

The bill applies to all “food service premises” where food is sold for immediate consumption, and which have a gross annual revenue of over $5 million, either directly or through a franchise system. This means that many franchised restaurant operations will be impacted by the requirements under the proposed new law.

Not surprisingly, the bill has already generated a considerable amount of controversy. The most vocal criticism has come from the restaurant industry, particularly through the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association (“CFRA”) which has called the bill a “huge step backwards”. It has emphasized that restaurant owners – and restaurant chains in particular – have already taken major steps to better inform their customers about the nutritional content of food items, and that the industry as a whole has been striving to reduce the amount of trans fats voluntarily. Furthermore, the CFRA has suggested that federal, rather than provincial, regulation governing trans fats would be more appropriate to permit greater control over the entire food supply chain.

There appears to be significant broad based support for the bill among health practitioners and the scientific community. The Ontario Public Health Association argues that Bill 156 will benefit both consumers and businesses insofar as it “creates a climate for healthy business competition among service providers by engaging them in providing healthier options for consumers and increasing consumer confidence in the industry”. As well, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has come out in strong support of the bill, noting that it represents a “sound, cost effective proposal to improve the health and economic productivity of Ontarians, protect the financial sustainability of the Ontario Health Insurance Plan, and facilitate informed consumer choice and health-protection using tried and true policies.”

As of mid-November, the Standing Committee on Social Policy had not yet issued a report and no transcripts of committee debates regarding this bill had been released. Accordingly, it is too early to speculate if the bill will be passed, and if it is passed, when it would be proclaimed into law. Members of Gowlings’ Franchise and Distribution Law Practice Group will be following the committee’s activities on this bill and can be contacted for updates on the status of the proposed new law.