TORONTO — Critics say the Ontario government bowed to pressure from the fast-food industry when it passed legislation mandating calorie counts on restaurant menus, but not sodium levels.
And they say the Ministry of Health hired FleishmanHillard, a known lobbyist for the fast-food industry, to lead its public consultations on menu labelling and to prepare a report on the issue.
“They have a clear conflict of interest there because they’re working for companies that are creating a lot of the problem,” said Bill Jeffery, executive director of the non-profit Centre for Health Science and Law.
NDP health critic France Gelinas introduced at least six private member’s bills on menu labelling since 2008, and said she can’t believe the government hired FleishmanHillard – a company she branded “the enemy” – to do its consultations.
“They were the ones hired by PepsiCo and Doritos and Skittles … to push back against it,” said Gelinas. “The Ministry of Health knew who they were hiring, and it stinks. It’s terrible.”
FleishmanHillard refused to comment, other than to say it did not represent Pepsi in Ontario at the time of the consultations. The firm did not respond to questions asking if it represented the soft drink giant at other times or in other regions.
The Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care issued a statement defending its decision to award FleishmanHillard firm the $80,000 contract.
“As a vendor of record with the Ontario government, FleishmanHillard underwent a rigorous selection process and was required to sign a conflict-of-interest statement.”
The Centre for Health Science and the Law said it was strange to see FleishmanHillard running the government’s 2013 consultations on menu labelling because many of its corporate clients oppose the idea.
“You could really feel the division between the industry people and the public health community people, many of whom didn’t know much about the issue, such as parent-teacher associations,” said Jeffery.
Gelinas said there’s only one reason why the government would hire FleishmanHillard to help with the menu-labelling issue.
“To buy favours from big corporations and big money people,” she said. “It’s that simple. The Liberals are not complicated.”
The government called suggestions that it bowed to industry pressure false, and said the original intent of its legislation was to fight childhood obesity, which is why it started by mandating calorie counts be listed on menus.
“Our government has never closed the door on adding sodium and other factors, and in fact our legislation allows us to add other criteria in the future,” said Shae Greenfield, spokesman for Health Minister Eric Hoskins.
Starting in January, restaurants with 20 or more locations in Ontario must post calorie counts on menus, but not sodium levels.
Public health experts argued that including calories but not sodium could have the “unintended consequence” of encouraging increased use of salt to enhance taste. Gelinas said the government should give consumers more credit.
“They can figure out calories and sodium,” said Gelinas. “We’re not that dumb.”
FleishmanHillard’s 16-page report, which Jeffery obtained three years after filing a freedom of information request, outlines reasons for not giving consumers more nutritional information:
– Calorie labelling could lead some consumers to order higher-calorie food because they think that’s a way of obtaining more value for their money;
– Giving consumers calories, sodium and other information about the nutritional value of their food could “dilute the message” about healthier eating habits;
– Providing calorie and sodium counts might slow down the decisions by customers at restaurant drive-thrus, creating longer wait times for other drivers in line;
– Movie theatre concessions should be viewed differently from other sellers of prepared foods, in part because it’s hard to know how many people will share a box of popcorn;
– Providing information for more than one nutrient would make it exponentially more difficult for industry, and more costly.
Ontario is the first province to regulate calorie counts on menus – British Columbia has a voluntary system – but Canada lags behind the United States on the issue.
The city of Philadelphia requires information on sodium, saturated fat, trans fat and carbohydrates for menus, along with calorie counts.
The government also decided against a ban on advertising of unhealthy food and beverages to children after arguments over what constitutes an unhealthy product.
“While there was some support for government action, up to and including a ban on children’s advertising, there was also support for the notion that responsibility should rest with parents, rather than with government,” read FleishmanHillard’s report.