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Ritz says he'll meet government's listeriosis investigator

OTTAWA -- Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is going to get his audience with the head of a secretive government probe into the listeriosis outbreak after all.

OTTAWA -- Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is going to get his audience with the head of a secretive government probe into the listeriosis outbreak after all.

Investigator Sheila Weatherill will question Ritz about his role in the crisis that caused the deaths of 22 people who ate tainted meat.

Weatherill raised eyebrows last week when she conceded she had not formally spoken to Ritz since being hired in January.

Ritz, as the federal minister who oversees Canada's food safety watchdog, seemed a rather glaring omission on Weatherill's witness list -- and Weatherill refused to say whether the minister would be interviewed.

But Ritz told a special parliamentary panel on food safety Wednesday he will indeed meet Weatherill for questioning "in the coming days."

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Ritz's appearance at the food safety panel marked his first real grilling over the listeriosis outbreak.

He apologized last fall after The Canadian Press reported that he unnerved some public servants by cracking tasteless jokes during a conference call.

Sources who took notes during the Aug. 30, 2008 call said Ritz quipped: "This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."

News of Ritz's gallows humour broke during last fall's federal election campaign -- an inopportune time for a Conservative government vying for a second term.

Despite opposition calls to fire Ritz, Prime Minister Stephen Harper re-appointed the former grain and ostrich farmer to the agriculture portfolio last fall.

Weatherill must report to Ritz by July 20. That's four months past the original March 15 due date set when Harper promised an "arm's-length" investigation last September.

"She will decide at the end of the day what will be in her report," Ritz said.

"I know she has millions of documents to go through. I know she's had tremendous response from everyone who she called forward to make presentations..."

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"I look forward to what she reports."

Secrecy shrouds Weatherill's work. It's not known exactly who she has questioned, and she isn't speaking to reporters until she hands in her report.

Late Wednesday, MPs on the food safety panel were given copies of briefing material, memos and speaking notes prepared for Ritz during and after the listeriosis crisis.

The documents refer to new Listeria testing procedures put in place at the beginning of this month, to reviews of the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto that was linked to the tainted meats, and to a series of "lessons learned" reports released earlier this month.

Any memos and briefing notes that may have been prepared for Ritz in August 2008 -- considered the outbreak's apex -- were not included in the package of documents given to the food safety panel. The first memo to Ritz is dated Sept 10.

Twenty-two people died and hundreds more fell ill after eating contaminated deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto.

The company apologized and agreed to pay up to $27 million to settle class-action lawsuits.

Maple Leaf has since instituted more rigorous testing for Listeria in plants producing ready-to-eat meat.

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