Canada farm minister sorry for jokes about death

Thu Sep 18, 2008 8:07am EDT
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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's farm minister has apologized for making tasteless jokes about a fatal listeriosis outbreak and saying he hoped it had killed off his main political rival.

The outbreak at a Maple Leaf Foods deli meat plant has been linked to at least 16 deaths and prompted one of Canada's biggest food recalls.

The Canadian Press reported that during a conference call between officials to discuss the crisis last month, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had quipped, "This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."

On hearing about a new death in the Atlantic province of Prince Edward Island, Ritz said: "Please tell me it's Wayne Easter." Easter is the farm spokesman for the opposition Liberal party and comes from the island.

"I want to offer my most humble and heartfelt regrets to the families of those affected by this tragedy. I did not intend to add to their suffering and I very deeply apologize for that," Ritz said in a statement on Wednesday night.

He also apologized to Easter, who has called for Ritz to quit over the Conservative government's handling of the outbreak.

"This is no joking matter," Easter told CTV television late on Wednesday, slamming what he called Ritz's "total insensitivity."

Ritz's comments were the latest in a series of gaffes to hit the Conservatives, who are campaigning to retain power ahead of an Oct 14 election.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty)