Canada's prime minister is standing by the Conservative party's embattled agriculture minister after he sheepishly admitted to making jokes last month about a deadly bacteria outbreak linked to processed meats that killed 17 people across the country.

Minister Jerry Ritz called the crisis "a death by a thousand cuts — or should I say cold cuts," during a conference call. When told about a new death in Prince Edward Island he said, "Please tell me it's (Liberal agriculture critic) Wayne Easter."

Ritz apologized publicly Wednesday.

Liberal party leaders have urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to fire Ritz.

But Harper said Thursday that while the controversy is embarrassing, Ritz has done a good job and should not be punished.