Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was in potentially hostile political territory Friday as he worked to regain momentum in a Bloc Quebecois stronghold.

The Bloc have held the Farnham, Que., seat since 1993, but the Conservatives hope to win new seats in the province and in Ontario - key battlegrounds if they are to achieve a majority government.

In Quebec, Harper announced plans to allow income-splitting for spouses in families where one takes time off to care for a family member with disabilities. He also announced planned changes to the Registered Disability Savings Program to help people with disabilities access money more easily.

However, those issues were pushed to the back burner Friday as Harper was again forced to defend his embattled Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his handling of the listeriosis crisis.

Harper remained steadfast in his defence of his minister, who made controversial remarks that crisis was "death by a thousand ... cold cuts" on Aug. 30.

The comments became public on Wednesday.

"These are terribly unfortunate situations and that's why going forward we're making sure not just that were investing more in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency but we're going to do a thorough review to make sure these things don't happen in the future," Harper said.

CTV parliamentary correspondent Graham Richardson read comments to Harper from families of Listeria victims who were insulted by Ritz's jokes about the outbreak.

"We would expect people in that situation would be very upset as we all are, and obviously we sympathize greatly with the situation and the loss of their loved ones," Harper said.

PIPSC and CMAJ call for resignation, inquiry

Gary Corbett, vice-president of The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, has also called for Ritz's resignation, telling CTV's Mike Duffy Live on Friday that the comments were inappropriate not just because of their nature, but also who they were heard by.

"You got to remember that this minister made these comments in the earshot of federal public servants who are supposed to be non-partisan and these people have a lot of influence over these federal public servants," Corbett said.

Paul Herbert, the Editor-In-Chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal also appeared on CTV's Mike Duffy Live on Friday and compared the listeriosis outbreak to other public health crises such as SARS and the tainted-water scandal in Walkerton, Ont.

Herbert said his organization is calling for a public inquiry into the Canadian food inspection system because he said there are "cracks in the system pretty much top to bottom."

"We're in a system where the government and the whole system has set the lowest standards, or amongst the lowest standards in the world," Herbert said. "We've gone from a system that was using largely meat inspectors to a system of self-policing. We've taken out money from the system and eroded the government's responsibility in the system, all within the last few years."

Layton slams Tories

NDP Leader Jack Layton, who was in Ottawa Friday for the funeral of former Ottawa mayor and NDP stalwart Marion Dewar, also hammered away at Harper's handling of the Ritz affair, and said his party would do more to bolster Canada's food inspection rules.

"Canadian families count on their prime minister to ensure the food they feed to their children is safe," Layton said.

"Stephen Harper has failed you and your family."

Layton added that inspectors should be placed in every meat processing plant in Canada.

Harper was to move on to Ile-Perrot, Que., later Friday before heading to eastern Ontario to continue fighting for Liberal seats.

Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, who was in Whitby, Ont., to talk about his party's plan to help the sluggish auto sector, also attacked Harper's singular leadership style and said the Liberals would take a "team" approach to governing.

"Cheap, coarse jokes at a time of crisis in our food supply; that's what you get when you've got one-man rule. That's what you get when you don't really have cabinet government," Ignatieff said.

Harper's Quebec swing comes as Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe conceded Friday that his party was locked in a major struggle with the Conservatives for seats.

Opinion polls have suggested the parties are in a dead heat in popular support across the province, and a Tory insider said his party could win 48 seats on Oct. 14, The Canadian Press reported.

With files from The Canadian Press