Minister faces calls for resignation after joking about listeriosis outbreak

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz must resign following jokes he made about the listeriosis outbreak, the opposition said Wednesday night.

Political fallout of crisis will be death by 1,000 cold cuts, agriculture minister quipped

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz must resign following jokes he made about the listeriosis outbreak, the opposition said Wednesday night.

It is the second time Ritz has been urged to resign because of his handling of the outbreak, which has killed 17 people in Canada and prompted a nation-wide recall of Maple Leaf Foods meat products.

In a statement released Wednesday night, Liberal Agriculture critic Wayne Easter said a media report that quotes Ritz making wisecracks about the outbreak during a conference call with scientists, bureaucrats and political staff was unacceptable.

Sources who took notes during the call told the Canadian Press that Ritz fretted about the political dangers of the crisis, before quipping: "This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."

When told about a new death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said: "Please tell me it's [Liberal MP] Wayne Easter."

About 30 people were reportedly on the call at the time the comments were made, including communications staff from the prime minister's office, most of Ritz's staff, Health Minister Tony Clement's policy and communications advisers and senior public servants, including deputy health minister Morris Rosenberg.

The sources spoke to the Canadian Press on condition of anonymity.

Easter said the incident is just another reason why Ritz should be dismissed.

"I've already called for Mr. Ritz's resignation over his handling of the listeriosis outbreak and his failure to tell the truth to Canadians about the government's role in it," said Easter.

"I could never imagine he would show this kind of insensitivity."

NDP Leader Jack Layton echoed the call for Ritz's resignation.

"I think the prime minister [Stephen Harper] has to fire Gerry Ritz as minister immediately, and he has to fire him as a candidate in this election," said Layton.

"I don't see anything funny about what Mr. Ritz said."

For his part, Ritz delivered a public apology for the comments during an appearance in suburban Ottawa on Wednesday.

"It was a highly stressful time," he said in prepared remarks.

"Many people were working countless hours and attending countless meetings to keep on top of the situation. In that context, I made a couple of spur of moment, offhand comments. In particular, one about my official opposition critic, whom I have already called to apologize.

"My comments were tasteless and completely inappropriate. I apologize unreservedly."

Since it erupted last month, the listeriosis outbreak has resulted in the recall of close to 200 meat products. There have been 14 deaths in Ontario, and one each in British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal released an editorial Tuesday that slammed the federal government for its handling of the outbreak, saying Harper's Conservative government has reversed much of the progress previous governments made in relation to public health.

Harper is aware of Ritz's comments and said he felt they were inappropriate, the prime minister's spokesman Kory Teneycke said Wednesday night.

Teneycke said, however, that he had no expectation Ritz would resign following the gaffe, adding that Ritz is not disputing the comments reported by the Canadian Press.

"I will say these comments were clearly inappropriate," Teneycke said .

"And we are pleased the Minister of Agriculture has made an unreserved apology for those remarks and that he has also apologized directly to Mr. Easter."

The conversation on Aug. 30 began with talk of the mounting death toll and trends in the spread of the disease, according to the Canadian Press.

Ritz reportedly began the call by asking: "Are there any more bombs out there?" — referring to any politically damaging news.

The discussion later shifted to communications and how to frame the government's message.

The Liberal party called for Ritz's resignation earlier this month, accusing the minister of  staging a coverup over changes to food safety inspections.

The Liberals claim that under the Tories, a new inspection system was implemented that diminished the role of food inspectors and inspection of food.

Ritz rejected the calls for his resignation, insisting that no cuts were made to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and that more money, in fact, had been allocated to the department.