“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world;
indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
In the fall of 2001, Barbara Kowalcyk’s friends did all they could to pull her family out of the emotional chasm that had swallowed them following the August 11th death of her adorable, inquisitive little boy, Kevin. At just 2 1/2 years old, Kevin had died a painful death from complications from an E. coli 0157:H7 infection.
Well-meaning visitors came daily, bearing lasagna, flowers, cards, and books. There were so many books . . . on grieving, on losing a child, on faith. And because she needed to make sense of this senselessness, Kowalcyk read every one of them, searching for solace, for some justification of Kevin’s death.
A passage in Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People gave her pause. Suffering, he said, could have either a positive or a negative meaning; it all depended on one’s response to it. If she and her family allowed Kevin’s death to embitter them, then he would become a martyr for pain and darkness. But, if they chose to, they could respond to their unspeakable loss by helping others avoid tragedy. Kevin’s death could never be justified, but it didn’t have to be in vain. They could at least bring forth some good from this tragedy.
Kowalcyk turned to her husband. “That’s it,” she said, her voice resolute, “Kevin is going be a martyr for good.”
It was probably a hamburger, they would later learn, that had infected Kevin with E. coli O157:H7. His immature immune system could not stave off the deadly Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) that ensued. In a period of 12 days, Kevin’s health systematically deteriorated, until HUS finally cut off the blood supply to both his small and large intestines, killing him.
Over the next few years, the Kowalcyks and their extended family became increasingly active in food safety research and advocacy. They sat on boards, joined coalitions, and presented on Capitol Hill.
“That process taught us so much,” she said. ”We had no idea that our food safety system was so badly broken.”
Despite having educated herself about her own family’s food allergies, and despite poring over food labels, reading medical journals, and thoroughly interviewing prospective pediatricians, Kowalcyk had never heard of HUS before Kevin got sick. In fact, she had never heard of many of the dangers lurking in America’s food supply and this really alarmed her. She thought if she, as a scientist, did not know about these food safety hazards, then she was sure that many other parents would not know either.
The family’s quest to improve US food safety was gaining national attention, and soon Kowalcyk and her mother, Patricia Buck, an educator and writer, were working full-time on food safety. So in 2006, Kowalcyk and Buck co-founded a small nonprofit, calling it the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention. Their mission: to prevent foodborne disease through scientific research, education, outreach and public service. The all-volunteer organization was dedicated to improving food protections for consumers and had a very limited budget.
CFI was quickly recognized as a driving force in food safety, and they were given multiple opportunities to serve on national coalitions, advisory committees, and food safety forums, including ones at the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture. Through CFI’s growing team of experts and advocates, they were able to help secure numerous national food protection policies in meat, poultry, microbial testing, import safety and produce safety.
Even so, Kowalcyk knew that she needed the credentials of a high-level educational degree to effect the changes she envisioned in food safety. "I needed to be viewed, not as a victim who happened to be a scientist, but as a scientist who happened to be affected by foodborne illness,” she explains. “There’s a big difference." So, in 2007, she enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, Department of Environmental Health’s doctoral program, focusing on Biostatistics and Molecular Epidemiology in Children’s Environmental Health.
Today, Kowalcyk and Buck are recognized experts on food safety, and are frequently called to lend their knowledge on foodborne illness and food safety in Washington, DC and abroad. Kowalcyk’s expertise as a scientist, combined with her personal experience, garner respect from victims’ advocates, scientists, policymakers and lawmakers alike. She and Buck also appeared in the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentary "Food, Inc" to tell Kevin's story.
As a center in the Ohio State College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), CFI will provide a centralized hub for food safety resources, and will invite researchers, faculty and staff from the colleges of Public Health, Veterinary Medicine, Education and Human Ecology, and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs to help find solutions to the 21st century’s food safety challenges. The new center will also work with industry partners, consumer food safety groups, and other academic institutions – as well as federal and state government agencies charged with ensuring the safety of our food supply.
“In bringing CFI to Ohio State, we hope to build a stronger network of food safety experts who have the resources and talent to address existing and emerging food safety problems,” Kowalcyk said. “CFI will work to create lasting strategic partnerships with food safety stakeholders and develop new research and funding opportunities. We’re committed to helping develop policies and practices that create a positive food safety culture, from farm to table and beyond.”