Health Canada's curious deletion from an information request

This brain teaser courtesy of Health Canada's access to information department. See if you can figure out what word or phrase has been blacked out from an otherwise innocuous document about serving-size labels.

A snapshot of government secrecy. Can you guess the missing word or phrase?

Nutrition label lists serving size as 1 biscuit or 6.6 grams. Health Canada documents on serving size guidelines were mysteriously redacted. (Kelly Crowe/CBC)

See if you can figure it out.

This brain teaser was brought to us courtesy of Health Canada's Access to Information department. 

It's the first line, on the first page, in a package of 400 documents about food labels. Those are the labels that appear on processed food, listing the amount of calories, fat, salt and other nutritional data.

I requested the documents as background research for a future story about food labels. And I was not expecting any surprises.

Yet on the first line of the first page, there was this curious deletion: "Review of serving size (deleted word) guidelines."

What is the missing word? (Health Canada)

What is the missing word? And why is it too sensitive to reveal? What state secret is being protected here, in a document about nutrition labels?

The rest of the document — an old internal health ministry communication discussing plans for a review of serving sizes on nutrition labels — was untouched.

 And while it is common to encounter blacked-out sections in documents released through Ottawa's access-to-Information process, this particular deletion seemed bizarre even by the most stringent standards of privacy or government decision-making.  

How could a single word, or maybe a short phrase, somehow reveal so much about these pending "serving size guidelines" that it had to be blacked out, while the rest of the document remained intact?

7 subsections

The document in question outlined an issue Health Canada bureaucrats were grappling with, after the ministry received complaints about non-standard serving sizes.

Consumers were finding it hard to compare nutrition information when one chocolate bar lists a serving in grams, and another uses individual squares, for example.

Anyone interested in reading a dull Health Canada memo on the topic was free to see everything but that missing detail in the first sentence.

Intrigued, I wrote back to the information officers to ask why I could not see this super-secret word.

The answer?  It seems that word is an official cabinet secret, and thus redacted under section 69 (1) of the Access to Information Act.

"The blanked-out areas refer to cabinet confidences or information used in a cabinet confidence," the chief of Health Canada's access to information and privacy division, Raymond Belleau, said in an email.

To confound matters further, there are seven subsections under section 69 (1) but I am not allowed to know which subsection officials used to censor the word.

"We never provide the exact subsection as that information itself may disclose the information to be protected," Belleau wrote. He added that the offending word was ordered deleted by "Legal Services."

Legal services

"Legal Services" means the Department of Justice lawyers who are assigned to the individual federal departments. Documents being released through the Access to Information Act are provided them to review for cabinet confidences, said Belleau in a second email.

On its website, the justice department defines cabinet confidences as "the political secrets of ministers individually and collectively, the disclosure of which would make it very difficult for the government to speak in unison before Parliament and the public."

So we're left to guess at the political secret lurking in the serving size guidelines.

 (Could it be "review of serving size climate change guidelines?" Or "review of serving size Senate expense guidelines?" )

Probably it is something colourless like "proposed," "mandatory" or  "standardization."

Whatever the secret, it's old news. The document was written in September 2011.

And perhaps the need to go over every sentence with a fine tooth comb explains why it took two years to have access to these papers. They were first requested in 2012, but not released until last fall.

By then, the proposed consultations had already happened, and new serving size standards had been released for consultation.

The documents reveal nothing sensational about bureaucratic discussions on serving size labels.  But they do appear to pull the curtain aside slightly, to expose Ottawa's painstaking efforts to keep a secret, no matter how small.

About the Author

Kelly Crowe

Medical science

Kelly Crowe is a science correspondent for CBC News. She joined CBC in 1991, and has spent 25 years reporting on a wide range of national news and current affairs, with a particular interest in science and medicine.


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