“Kobe” beef from Alberta. “Fresh cut” fries that turned out to be frozen. A “soy” smoothie without the soy.

In recent years, Canadians have become more interested than ever before in what they eat, and where their food comes from. And they are paying more attention to information provided on menus. But that rests on the assumption that what is written on the menus is true – which, it turns out, may not always be the case.

Documents obtained through an access to information request reveal that some of the country’s largest restaurant chains – companies that, among them, have hundreds of locations across Canada – have been flagged in recent years for violating labelling laws by making claims on their menus that misled customers or misrepresented themselves.

These companies include Browns Socialhouse, with 50 locations across Canada, and the ubiquitous Booster Juice chain, which has more than 100 stores. In some cases, the menu claims were not even related to ingredients – such as a 2012 probe into Red Lobster, a chain with almost 30 Canadian restaurants.

Through an access to information request, The Globe has compiled documents from menu verification investigations conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Alberta, where some of the largest chains are headquartered. The CFIA is the federal agency that enforces food labelling laws. The result is a picture of the sometimes-murky world of menu and food claims, where even some of the biggest players have been found flouting the laws.

The Food and Drugs Act prohibits the sale or advertisement of food “in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create an erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, composition, merit or safety.” Offences can lead to penalties ranging from a fine to imprisonment.

The Browns Socialhouse investigation began in May, 2013, after a customer complaint about use of the term “Kobe” in relation to a burger. Authentic Kobe beef is rare and extremely difficult to come by in North America, and the name refers to meat from the Tajima strain of Wagyu cattle raised in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. The beef is renowned for its intense marbling and only one Canadian chef – Montreal’s Antonio Park – is certified to sell it.

In the CFIA investigator’s 2013 report, he wrote that he met with a staff member at the restaurant’s head office. “I informed him regarding the use of the term ‘Kobe Beef’ on the menu,” the investigator wrote. “Kobe Beef must be beef from Japan raised in that specific style. The product they were using is Wagyu beef sourced in Canada.”

A month later, the same investigator had a conversation with the restaurant after visiting a Regina location. “They felt that their statement of ‘Canadian Kobe’ would address this issue,” he wrote. “I told him it would still have to be called ‘Kobe-Style.’”

In an e-mail to The Globe, a Browns executive said the intention was not to mislead customers. Scott Ward, executive vice-president, said the company started selling the “Kobe Burger” in April, 2013. “There was no mention of the word ‘beef’ in the title,” he said. The restaurant took the burger off its menu after receiving a CFIA notice in the fall of 2013.

The next year, the restaurant again used the name “Kobe” for a burger – this one called “Kobe Classic Beef Burger.” That name, Mr. Ward said, was based on the trademarked name of an Alberta-based beef company. “We assumed it was okay to market the brand-named burger based on it being trademarked and upon receiving approval from the manufacturer to do so,” he said.

In November, 2014, the restaurant’s menu claim was found to be “misleading,” and the CFIA investigation closed. Browns was asked to change its website within three weeks and Mr. Ward said the restaurant has stopped offering “Kobe Classic” burgers.

The 2012 investigation into Booster Juice also resulted from a consumer complaint. In 2011, CFIA stopped conducting routine menu verification investigations. Since then, the CFIA’s investigations have been triggered by specific complaints only – leading to concerns about unequal enforcement across the industry.

The Booster Juice complaint cited the “Sonic Soy” smoothie, which listed “soy protein boosters” as an ingredient. According to the complainant, the soy booster was not included when a customer ordered the small size. “This is misleading for people about what they are consuming, and is in effect false advertising,” he wrote.

In response, Booster Juice at the time told the CFIA the issue was a training one, and said it was not standard policy to omit the ingredient. Still, Booster Juice CEO Dale Wishewan acknowledged in an interview with The Globe that some other concerns the CFIA raised in the 2012 investigation were valid, including posters that inaccurately claimed that one of its ingredients, wheatgrass, has the equivalent of 2.5 pounds of leafy green vegetables, although it did not say in what quantity. Those posters were later removed.

CFIA also took issue with the fact that the nutritional information on the menu boards for some items did not match the actual products – which Mr. Wishewan said was a misunderstanding. The smallest recipe changes can affect nutritional details, he said, adding that the company has spent thousands of dollars over the years updating menu boards to stay on top of such changes.

Mr. Wishewan said mislabelling is widespread in the industry. “I could point out hundreds of companies that have things which are way more – I’ll say outside the boundaries of what the CFIA would ever consider to be fair,” he said, adding that he is concerned that the rules are not enforced equally. “We will continue to work with the CFIA whenever anything comes about,” he said. “My hopes are that everybody is held to the same standards.”

Smaller restaurant chains, too, have been found in violation of the rules. Just months after the UK-inspired Tommyfield Gastro Pub opened in Calgary, a CFIA investigator showed up in February, 2014, to look into a complaint about the French fries. The “fresh cut” fries on the menu, it turned out, were frozen and made by McCain’s.

Tommyfield is owned by TMAC Group, which has seven pubs with different names around the city. Jack Abad, Tommyfield’s general manager, said it was an honest mistake and that the restaurant was using a claim from McCain’s – the phrase “fresh cut” from the cardboard box. “We were not trying to sway any of our guests the wrong way,” he said. He added that the company has learned to be more careful with its descriptions and has not had issues since.

Not all misleading menu claims involved ingredients.

In the case of Red Lobster, CFIA found “misrepresentation” in its advertising material in 2012, stemming from a menu claim at an Edmonton location. On the restaurant’s menu and website, Red Lobster boasted of partnerships with the CFIA in describing its commitment to safety and sustainability. The CFIA does not allow such use of its name without permission. In response to the investigation, the restaurant removed the references.

Florida-based Darden Restaurants, which at the time owned Red Lobster, declined to comment on the CFIA’s findings. The chain is now owned by Golden Gate Capital. A spokesperson for Red Lobster said the company was unaware of the policy.

“Following local regulations is important to us,” the spokesperson told The Globe, “which is why we quickly and actively engaged with CFIA at the time to remove any references to a partnership with them.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Sep. 05, 2016 6:52PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Sep. 05, 2016 11:14PM EDT