Menu Labelling Challenges Hit Ontario Operators

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THE CHALLENGE
On January 1, 2017, the Healthy Menu Choices Act, 2015 came into effect, requiring foodservice operations with 20 or more locations in Ontario to display calorie information for all standard menu items. The goal of this new Act — which affects all foodservice locations offering processed/prepared food-and-beverage items intended for immediate consumption on or off premises, and also meet the prescribed number of locations — is to raise public awareness about the calorie content of food and beverages consumed outside of the home.

“Even though our menu is skewed towards the healthy/nutritious side, we were a little intimidated at first by the scope of work required to do this,” says Daniel Davidzon, manager, Marketing and Communications for Toronto-based Aroma Espresso Bar, which is celebrating its 10th year in Canada. “Although we are confident in the nutrition factor of our menu, there was some concern that certain items on our menu, when customers saw the calorie counts, they might be a little taken aback.”

But, he says, the brand was confident the legislation would work to its advantage, “because we’ve had high standards when it comes to nutritional integrity for years. We’ve always made sure our menu is transparent in terms of the ingredients we use and the level of nutrition in the menu items we put together.”

The process, he admits, was rigorous and, at times, all-consuming. “We had four R’s we had to go through: review, redesign, re-test and then re-review. Over the course of three or four weeks, all our team did was read over every menu item, every number, line by line,” he explains. Not an easy undertaking for a chain with 39 locations featuring digital menus, printed wall menus, in-store/take-out/catering menus, kosher-store menus and a website — not to mention nutritional information sheets made available as digital downloads and in store. “That’s [a lot of] items right off the bat that needed overhauls and a limited amount of time to get it done,” says Davidzon.

After reviewing all the marketing materials — and the legislation itself — with a fine-toothed comb, the Aroma design team then had to figure out a way to display the information in a way that wouldn’t overwhelm its customers. “We are basically doubling the number of numbers on our menu,” he says. “It’s a lot to look at and it’s a challenge to make it visually appealing.”

The Government of Ontario, for its part, provided restaurants with tools such as infographics to help clarify what restaurants can and cannot do in terms of this new legislation. “There were a few times at the beginning, and just before we went to print, when we had some scares about whether we could print it the way we had it. But the information was all there, which made the job a little easier for us,” Davidzon admits. From a financial perspective, he says the actual cost of executing and rolling out the new menus was greater than the price Aroma had to pay for consultations or lab testing on its food and beverages. “There was a lot of manpower required to roll this out, a lot of hours spent reviewing and doing the design work to put the menus in place, but overall it’s well worth it for a restaurant like Aroma.”

But according to Jay Gould, founder and president of Toronto-based South St. Burger Co., the legislation is meaningless and will “cost restaurants an absolute fortune to implement.”

He also says the playing field is not level under the new legislation, “Those of us with more than 20 restaurants have to do this while someone with one or 10 doesn’t have to do a thing. It’s not a level playing field and it’s misleading, to say the least.”

He says if the government would spend its money trying to educate people with programs such as ParticipAction and ones promoting healthy food choices, it would have a far more genuine impact. “People look at the calories on day one and after that, it’s wallpaper; but it’s a lot of wallpaper and it’s a significant cost to us to implement in the first place. Now somebody has to patrol it — the government will need to have a whole new section of Queen’s Park dedicated to policing it…is this really the best use of money? It’s another example of the government going too far and interfering.”

Davidzon agrees that adding calories to the menu may not have the impact the government is hoping for. “There’s been a lot of research done in places such as New York (where the legislation has been in place for some time) that shows after the first few months, changes [to eating habits] seem to plateau and people revert back to old habits…because the calories become just another thing you see on the menu and stop paying attention to after a while.”

According to Kate Comeau, manager, Public Relations and Media for Dietitians of Canada (DOC), the fact that the new legislation only gives information on calories can be misleading for consumers. “A chef or dietitian knows a 750-calorie sandwich made with basic ingredients is a nourishing lunch, compared to a brownie at 450 calories,” she says. “This is an extreme example perhaps, but will the public make [food]decisions based only on calories? From a health perspective, calories don’t tell us very much about how nourishing a food is and this has dietitians concerned.”

THE OPPORTUNITY
While many restaurants are unhappy with the costs associated with compliance, Davidzon says the legislation will likely pay off for most restaurants in the long run. “It’s giving [consumers] the chance to make informed decisions based on the information you’re providing them. Hopefully, this will lead to a healthier lifestyle for the majority of our customers.”

Comeau agrees and says DOC supports the new legislation. “We were happy that many of the changes proposed by dietitians during the consultation phase were incorporated,” she says. “Still, we have some reservations about the effectiveness and unintended consequences. We have recommended education around the new label and a comprehensive evaluation strategy.  She says there is likely to be pressure to make changes to some items by consumers and “a sort of sticker shock could happen. There is an opportunity to work with a dietitian to change recipes or serve smaller portions to meet consumer demand. That said, calories aren’t everything, and hopefully consumers continue to look for healthier, balanced choices when eating out.”

“[The legislation] is still new, so we’ll see how it rolls out, but we’re optimistic our menu very much aligns with the spirit and the ideology of this legislation so we’re pleased with that,” says Davidzon. “Whether it’s going to be a good thing for all restaurants going forward, I don’t know. Certainly we’d hope so — it’s empowering people to learn more about what they’re putting into their bodies.”

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