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Barbara Kowalcyk

“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

Lyndon Johnson first spoke those words after the devastating assassination of John F. Kennedy, as Johnson sought to heal the nation, and urged the country toward “a new American greatness.”

His observation resonates deeply with me; a present-day response to a past that cannot be undone led me to co-found the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention nearly 13 years ago.

Thanks to my father’s career as a mathematics professor, I grew up steeped in the university culture and developed a love (and sometimes hate!) relationship with mathematics. After completing a bachelor’s degree in the subject, I headed for graduate school and earned a master’s degree in statistics, and began my career as a biostatistician, conducting clinical research.

Then, in 2001, the course of my life—and my entire family’s—was irrevocably changed when my 2½-year-old son, Kevin, died from complications due to an E. coli O157:H7 infection. Following his death, our family was desperate to understand what had happened to our beautiful little boy. We started looking for answers.

What we learned about America’s food safety system shocked us. Soon we were advocating for new legislation that gave USDA the authority to shut down meat and poultry plants that repeatedly failed to meet Salmonella performance standards. The legislation was later called Kevin’s Law due to our efforts.

I soon realized that advancing food safety was my calling and redirected my career to focus full-time on food safety. In 2006, I co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI) with my mother, Patricia Buck, to advocate for science-based solutions that prevent foodborne illness and protect public health. At the same time, I decided to pursue a doctorate in epidemiology and biostatistics, with the goal of preventing foodborne illness on a large scale. Since then, we have met with a multitude of policy-makers, presented numerous times to Congressional committees, and consistently advocated on behalf of consumers on many food safety issues. We have also shared the best available scientific findings through our website, in films and newspapers, and on local and nationally televised programs—in short, through every appropriate outlet we could find—all in an effort to effect change in our food safety system.

Today, as we observe National Food Safety Education Month, I am thrilled to announce that CFI is now a center within Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

The food safety challenges of the 21st century are daunting. Changes in the food system and the environment have led to increased risk of food contamination, and the number of new and emerging bacteria, toxins, and antibiotic-resistant strains are growing. Addressing these and many other critical threats to our food supply requires an integrated, systems-based approach that is rooted in science and driven by risk. Yet food safety stakeholders, from local to global, struggle with effectively implementing such an approach.

Given its expertise and reputation in the food safety community, Ohio State has the opportunity to make a significant contribution in this field – locally, nationally, and globally. Faculty from every college in the university are working to address food safety-related issues. Many of them have been tapped for key advisory roles, and an impressive number have received awards for their work. Yet, while they are involved in a number of successful food safety collaborations within CFAES and across Ohio State, there has been no central point for connecting and engaging these teams, either internally or with external stakeholders.

Until now.

Since its founding as a 501(c)(3), CFI has worked to advance a stronger, more science-based food safety system. We are dedicated to improving food safety and advancing One Health by creating synergies, fostering interdisciplinary collaborations, and facilitating the translation of research into policy and practice.

As a CFAES college center, CFI will build on and amplify Ohio State’s existing efforts to address current and imminent food safety challenges. We will provide an organizational structure and a single point of contact for external and internal queries about food safety. CFI will serve as the platform for coordinating food safety efforts, facilitating transdisciplinary collaborations within Ohio State, and creating lasting partnerships with food safety stakeholders. We are dedicated to protecting public health and creating a positive food safety culture, from farm to table, and beyond.

CFI’s mission, vision, and strategic objectives are in strong alignment with those of Ohio State, CFAES, and my home department of Food Science and Technology (FST). We think of ourselves as “knowledge brokers,” translating the best available science into evidence-informed policies and practices. CFI has advocated for consumers, helped inform legislation and regulations, conducted national and international research projects, and developed strategic partnerships – all to advance our vision of a food system that consistently delivers safe, affordable, and nutritious food to all. Our work is rooted in science; best practices for science-based advocacy are our guiding principles. This focus makes CFI unique in the food safety community.

I am confident that this move will better position Ohio State and CFI to win the fight against foodborne disease. Please join us on November 14, 2019, for our Inaugural Event at Ohio State, Translating Science into Policy and Practice: What are the food safety priorities?

Go Bucks!

Barbara Kowalcyk, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology

 
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