Ritz in hot water over wisecracks during listeria outbreak
By Steve Rennie, THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA - Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz unnerved some public servants at the height of the listeriosis crisis by resorting to gallows humour during a conference call about a public health scare that has now killed 17 people.
Ritz was also deeply concerned about the political fallout from the listeriosis crisis as the deadly disease claimed more victims in the days before the federal election was called, according to sources in on the crisis call last month.
But that concern apparently didn't stop Ritz from cracking wise while scientists, bureaucrats and political staff listened in on the Aug. 30th call.
Sources who took notes during the call said 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."
The disease was linked to cold cuts from Maple Leaf Meats.
And when told about a new death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said:
"Please tell me it's (Liberal MP) Wayne Easter."
Easter is the Liberal critic shadowing Ritz's Agriculture Department.
About 30 people participated in the Sunday morning conference call that began after 10 a.m. EDT. Participants included scientists, senior bureaucrats and political staff.
Others on the call included 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.
Officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency provided updates on the disease during the conversation.
The sources who spoke to The Canadian Press did so on the condition of anonymity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has been relentless in searching for and punishing anyone thought to have provided embarrassing information to reporters.
Ritz emailed an apology that he intended to deliver publicly in suburban Ottawa later 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."
But Ritz was less contrite when he was asked about his comments after his flight from Saskatoon touched down at the Ottawa airport Wednesday afternoon.
A bearded man with Ritz jostled with journalists as the agriculture minister beelined through the terminal to a waiting sedan. At one point the man grabbed a reporter's recorder and jabbed at the off button.
For two minutes Ritz stared dead ahead as he was peppered with questions about the conference call. His only words were clipped.
"Not right now, guys," he said.
Then: "Get out of my face, please."
Listeria can cause listeriosis, a foodborne illness that causes high fever, headache, neck stiffness and nausea that is of particular concern to the elderly, pregnant women and the infirm.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Ritz's remarks were beyond the pale.
"It was clearly inappropriate," said Kory Teneycke. "It was intended as a joke, but some things are not appropriate to joke about."
He also said Ritz had called Wayne Easter to offer a personal apology.
So far, 17 deaths have been linked to the recall of food products from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto. There have been 14 deaths in Ontario, and one each in British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick.
Sources say the Privy Council Office requested and chaired the conference call. This call was chaired by Daniel Jean, the deputy secretary to cabinet in the Privy Council Office.
That office, headed by Kevin Lynch, co-ordinates government policy and harnesses that policy to the formidable power of the public service.
The conversation on Aug. 30 began with talk of the mounting death toll and trends in the spread of the disease.
Sources say Ritz began the call by asking: "Are there any more bombs out there?" - implying any politically damaging news.
But discussion soon shifted to communications and how best to frame the government's message.
There was even talk of Liberal Leader Stephane Dion's Green Shift plan, sources say.
Ritz was not the only cabinet minister to quip about the food crisis.
The plant, where the listeria bacterium was found embedded deep inside slicing equipment, was closed Aug. 20 and reopened Wednesday.
Production resumed under a phased-in period and tests will be done before any food is released to public, said Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain.
"We have learned from this tragic experience and we can and will do more," said McCain.
"I continue to believe very strongly that Canada has one of the best food-safety systems in the world."
An editorial this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal blasted the Harper government for undermining public health safeguards.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Posted by Fillibluster at 9:55 PM