Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s comments on the listeriosis outbreak have the federal Liberals again calling for his resignation, this time over “inappropriate and insensitive” wisecracks on a conference call.
Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter cited a Canadian Press report Wednesday that quoted Ritz on an Aug. 30 call with staff from the federal agriculture and health departments and the prime minister’s office (PMO) relating to the outbreak.
Easter said the CP report suggests Ritz, during the call, was more concerned with the political fallout against his government than the impact of these deaths on Canadian families.
“This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts,” Ritz is reported to have said on the call. The listeriosis outbreak has been linked to contaminated ready-to-eat meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.
Easter, in a party press release Wednesday, said that while on the call, Ritz was told about “a new death from listeriosis on Prince Edward Island.” Ritz is reported to have replied, “Please tell me it’s Wayne Easter.”
“I don’t care what he said about me, but 17 people have died. That is no joking matter,” said Easter, a P.E.I. MP and former head of the National Farmers Union, in the Liberals’ release.
The Public Health Agency of Canada does not list any deaths or illnesses on Prince Edward Island as either confirmed or suspected to be related to this specific listeriosis outbreak.
A single case of listeriosis in the province in late August was confirmed Thursday as having no link to the Maple Leaf recall, and that patient is recovering in hospital, according to Dr. Lamont Sweet, the province’s chief health officer.
Most of the 47 cases of illness that the agency has confirmed to be part of the outbreak are in Ontario. Out of the 47 cases so far (as of mid-afternoon Wednesday), 17 people have died with listeriosis considered to be the contributing or underlying cause.
Ritz’s comments are “all the more deplorable,” Easter said, in light of an editorial that appeared yesterday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Easter quoted the journal as saying “government policy errors helped bring about this epidemic.”
In an article Wednesday at the Globe and Mail’s web site, a PMO spokesman is quoted as saying that Ritz does not deny making the remarks on the conference call and that Ritz has apologized both to Easter by phone and publicly during a speech in Ottawa.
The Globe quoted the PMO quoting Ritz as describing the Aug. 30 jokes as “tasteless and completely inappropriate” and saying he apologized “unreservedly.” The spokesman also said Ritz’s resignation was “not offered nor asked for.”
The Liberals have previously said Ritz recently misled Canadians about changes the government made “which resulted in inspectors spending less time inspecting meat plants and more time doing paperwork.”
Ritz, the Liberals said, denied changes made at Treasury Board to the inspection regime timelines and budgets. The Liberals quoted Ritz as claiming on CBC Radio Aug. 23 that “nothing had changed.”