Film tells how foodborne illness changed former Mt. Horeb family

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Susan Troller

July 15, 2009

One of the strongest, most poignant voices in Robert Kenner's documentary "Food, Inc." belongs to Barbara Kowalcyk, a former Dane County woman who is now a crusading national expert on foodborne illness and an advocate for improved food safety.

In 2001, the Kowalcyk family was living in Mount Horeb when their son, 2-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk, contracted E. coli from eating a hamburger and died of complications from the disease 12 days later at UW Children's Hospital.

That tragedy, made worse by a veil of secrecy and evasiveness from both government bureaucracies and the food industry as the family grappled with their little boy's death, prompted the Kowalcyks to become involved in trying to close what they see as dangerous gaps in the nation's food production and distribution system.

Kowalcyk and her mother, Patricia Buck, are the founders of the Center for Foodborne Illness, a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing foodborne illness through research, education, advocacy and service.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million Americans become ill each year from pathogens in their food, about 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.

"I was shocked when I learned from our own experience that laws surrounding food safety seemed designed more to protect food producers than to protect children," said Kowalcyk, who now lives in Ohio.

She noted that neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture nor the Food and Drug Administration have the power to force a mandatory recall of a tainted product.

"You'll often hear that a company is participating in a 'voluntary' recall. But that's misleading, because there are no mandatory recalls," Kowalcyk said.

Kevin's death and the Kowalcyk family's advocacy became a rallying force for legislation that would give the USDA more tools to monitor the meat and poultry industry, including the power to close down a processing plant with an outbreak of foodborne illness or to force a recall of tainted products.

That legislation, first introduced to Congress in 2002, became known as "Kevin's Law," but it has not been able to muster the necessary votes to become law. A bill that would give similar power to the FDA has been introduced in the current session of Congress.

Through her advocacy work, Kowalcyk met Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," who is also featured in "Food, Inc." He introduced her to Robert Kenner, producer and director of the film.

"There are, unfortunately, thousands of families who have stories like ours," Kowalcyk said. "Seeing Kevin up on that big screen is a very emotional thing for me, but I was honored to be part of the movie. These are issues (about food) that need to be discussed. They have an impact on our health, our environment and our culture."

The Kowalcyks, who moved to Ohio in 2006, return to Mount Horeb to visit friends twice a year, including an annual trek in December which coincides with a blood drive they sponsor in honor of Kevin's memory, and his birthday.



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