Safety Crusaders: The Story of 4 Real Women
She Focused on Solutions
Barbara Kowalcyk, 39, is director of food safety at the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (www.foodborneillness.org), which she cofounded in 2006 with her mother, Patricia Buck, 62, a former English teacher. They started the Grove City, Pennsylvania, group after Kowalcyk's son Kevin, then 2, died in 2001 of an infection contracted from contaminated meat. Kowalcyk and her husband, Michael, have three surviving children, ages 4 to 12.
It was as if a truck hit our child and no one was interested in finding the driver. When we tried to figure out who oversees food safety, it seemed that government agencies protect the big food companies rather than consumers.
Contracting a food-borne illness is a horrific way to die. Kevin was sick for 12 days and on dialysis and a ventilator. His heart stopped twice. The third time we couldn't resuscitate him. If I, a well-informed parent who had done clinical research in the pharmaceutical industry, couldn't protect my child, I figured other moms and dads needed help, too. I was mad, but most of all I wanted to fix this problem.
In March 2002 I learned that Safe Tables Our Priority [S.T.O.P.] would be picketing the USDA in support of legislation that would allow the federal government to shut down substandard meat and poultry plants. I was six months pregnant at the time, so I stayed home while my husband and mother went to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate. At the rally Senator Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) walked by. A woman standing nearby pushed my mother forward and said, "Ask him to sponsor the bill." She did just that, and we were immensely gratified that the senator agreed.
Meeting Senator Specter got our activism under way. In 2004 I left the pharmaceutical industry to run S.T.O.P. and two years after that, I resigned from my job to start our center, which focuses on research on food-borne illnesses. My mom and I noticed that the USDA, the CDC, and other government agencies weren't sharing data with one another. Outbreaks of certain illnesses were occurring, but no one realized it. We talked to Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D.-Conn.), who's a longtime food-safety advocate, and she brokered a 2007 agreement that would allow for interagency cooperation.
My family still battles grief, but seven years and a lot of counseling later we have more good days than bad. And we're looking forward to the possibility that the House and Senate will soon pass the meat-safety act Michael and my mom demonstrated for, which is now called Kevin's Law, after our son. Our organization should become as central to public health as the American Heart Association or American Cancer Society. I'm passionate about food safety but I wish I didn't have to be. There isn't a day I don't wish my son were alive.