Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2 1/2-year-old son, Kevin, ate a hamburger and died 12 days later from E. coli was featured prominently in Food, Inc. We caught up with her to find out what she’s been working on and what has happened with her campaign for increased regulation of America’s food industry.
What happened with Kevin’s Law? Where should viewers who are interested in learning more about food safety legislation go for more information?
Barbara Kowalyck: I am often asked about Kevin’s Law — what happened to it, how it was named and what it does. Actually, our family never set out to have a piece of legislation named after Kevin — we just wanted to prevent what happened to our family from happening to others. I’ll give a brief answer here, but if you want to read the whole story behind Kevin’s Law, you can visit: www.foodborneillness.org/Kevin’sLaw.
In 2002, Kevin’s Law was introduced as the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in an effort to re-establish USDA’s authority to enforce HACCP performance standards. Three members of our family attended the press conference where the legislation was being introduced and were asked to speak impromptu about what had happened to our family. After the bill’s introduction, our family decided to start a petition calling for Members of Congress to support the legislation — we ended up collecting 6,000 signatures from 36 states! In response to the work that our family had done, Senator Harkin declared that the legislation would be called Kevin’s Law. Unfortunately, despite our efforts, the bill never reached the floor for vote in the 107th Congress (2001-2002). It was re-introduced again in the 108th Congress (2003-2004) and the109th Congress (2005-2006) but, again, the bill did not make it out of the Congressional subcommittees for a vote.
Kevin’s Law was not re-introduced in the 110th Congress (2007-2008) because many felt that the time was right for a more comprehensive reform of our food safety system. As a result, Kevin’s Law was incorporated into several comprehensive pieces of food safety legislation, such as the Safe Food Act of 2007. Again, none of these bills moved out of the Congressional committees.
In the current 111th Congress (2009-2010), food safety legislative reform has focused on reforming FDA — which is not surprising given the rash of foodborne illness outbreaks that have been traced to FDA-regulated products. As a result, Kevin’s Law — which amended USDA’s authorities — was not re-introduced. However, the spirit of Kevin’s Law has been included in several pieces of legislation that have been designed to reform FDA, including the Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749). This bill was overwhelmingly passed in the House last summer, and currently the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), which is expected to come to the floor of the Senate soon, contains important concepts from Kevin’s Law. So, while Kevin’s Law is no longer a stand-alone piece of legislation, the idea of providing food oversight agencies with the authority to enforce and update food performance standards is very much part of current food safety reform efforts.
Getting the Senate to act soon is crucially important if the 111th Congress hopes to pass food safety legislation! For more information on Kevin’s Law and other food safety legislation, please visit www.foodborneillness.org — which is the website for the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the non-profit that I co-founded. If you want more information about S. 510 and/or want to contact your Senator to urge a floor vote on S. 510, please go to the Make Our Food Safe (MOFS) Coalition website at makeourfoodsafe.org and click on the “Take Action” button. CFI is a member of MOFS and urges you to act quickly so that important food protections can be secured for American consumers.
Working together, we can affect change!
Tell us about your organization, the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (CFI), and the Make Our Food Safe Coalition. What are the main campaigns that you are working on right now?
Kowalyck: Since Kevin’s death in 2001, my family has been working continuously to improve food safety and prevent foodborne disease. After working hard for several years to improve food protections, we were devastated with the 2006 spinach outbreak, and it became clear to us that a new approach was needed. Therefore, in December 2006, we founded a national non-profit health organization — the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (CFI) — to help America find innovative, science-based solutions to the food safety challenges of the 21st Century. Our goal was — and continues to be — to establish CFI as the “American Cancer Society” of foodborne illness. Today, CFI is the only 501 (c) (3) non-profit dedicated exclusively to reducing the incidence of foodborne illness and improving food protections through research, education, advocacy and service. In the past year, CFI collaborated with a team of distinguished scientists to publish a report on the long-term health outcomes of selected foodborne pathogens and worked with The Pew Charitable Trusts to develop a fact sheet on Children and Foodborne Illness that was endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Recently, CFI was very fortunate to obtain a small grant to identify systematic mechanisms for studying the long-term health effects of foodborne illness — an important task since it will help us better understand the sources, trends and health outcomes associated with foodborne disease. For more information on CFI’s programs or to support our efforts, please visit www.foodborneillness.org.
The Make Our Food Safe Coalition (MOFS) is a group of public health organizations, consumer organizations, and groups representing the families of victims of foodborne illness that are working together to improve food protections in the United States. Specifically, MOFS supports the enactment of food safety legislative reform in the 111th Congress. For more information on MOFS, please visit www.makeourfoodsafe.org.
CFI encourages parents to adhere to it’s Six Safe Food Practices at home. What are they?
Kowalyck: In the United States, we are constantly being told that we have the safest food supply in the world — and we may very well have — but that doesn’t mean that it is as safe as it could be!
Right from the beginning, CFI recognized that the United States needs a new integrated, comprehensive approach to food safety education that promotes safe food practices throughout the farm-to-table continuum and provides the motivation for changing behavior. Once people understand that all food carries some risk, they will be more motivated to follow safe food practices, whether they are working in a processing plant or cooking on the backyard grill.
Several groups, including the government, have developed a “recipe” of consumer food safety educational messages (Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill) that focus on safe food handling behaviors with the expectation that providing such information will increase consumer compliance and prevent foodborne illness. CFI’s Be Food Smart program, however, goes beyond Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill to promote six safe food practices that are in line with the World Health Organization’s Five Keys to Safer Food. In addition, CFI encourages the reporting of foodborne illness because without better reporting, we will not be able to gain more knowledge about these devastating foodborne diseases.
Here are CFI’s Six Safe Food Practices:
1. Use safe water and food.
The best way to ensure safe food is to prevent it from becoming contaminated in the first place. While it may be difficult to determine if your food and water is safe to consume, there are steps that you can take to help protect yourself:
- Be aware of foods that are frequently associated with foodborne illness.
- Be aware of your food source. Knowing the source of your food does not necessarily mean the food is safe, but it will help you make an informed purchasing decision.
- Be aware of food recalls and local water reports.
- Always check food for abuse or mishandling.
- Read labels and check “use by” or expiration dates.
- Remember, when in doubt, throw it out!
Microbes (germs) that cause foodborne illness can spread easily. Cleaning is an important way to stop the spread of foodborne pathogens!
- Clean hands with soap and water before handling food and after using the toilet or changing a diaper.
- Wash/sanitize all equipment and surfaces that come in contact with raw or uncooked food.
- Clean all raw produce before eating, cutting slicing or paring
- Clean tops of canned food before opening
- Do not wash or rinse raw meat, poultry or fish.
- Whenever possible, use disposable paper towels and discard sponges.
- Protect cooking areas and stored food from insects, pests and other animals.
Cross-contamination occurs when foodborne pathogens spread from a food to a surface and then to another food. Separation helps prevent cross contamination.
- Separate raw food — especially meat, poultry, seafood and eggs — from other items when shopping and preparing food.
- Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods
- Use clean utensils, plates and serving dishes for cooked and ready-to-eat food items
- Do not let juices from meat, poultry, seafood and eggs drip onto other foods
- Never reuse marinades that were used with raw foods without re-heating marinade to a boil.
Cooking can effectively kill foodborne pathogens — if the food is cooked to the proper temperature for the proper amount of time. Color, smell and appearance of food are not good indicators of doneness — a thermometer is the only way to make sure that a food has been cooked to the proper temperature!
- Always use a food/meat thermometer. For a chart of cooking temperatures, please visit http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/mintemp.html
- Heat leftovers and casseroles to 165ºF and bring sauces, soups and gravies to a rolling boil.
- Raw shell eggs may contain bacteria.
- Follow “stand time” directions — it is an important part of the cooking process.
- Follow directions for covering, stirring, rotating and “standing” food when microwaving.
- Know the wattage of your microwave oven.
Microorganisms grow quickly at room temperature. Cold temperatures slow the growth — but do not kill — foodborne pathogens. Keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot helps to reduce the risk of illness.
- Refrigerate raw and perishable foods within 2 hours — one hour in very hot weather.
- Store refrigerated foods at or below 40ºF.
- Store frozen foods at or below 0°F.
- Use a refrigerator thermometer.
- If there is a power outage, keep freezer and refrigerator doors closed. When power returns, be sure to check food items with a thermometer.
- Do not over-stack your refrigerator during holidays or parties.
6. Report foodborne illness.
Foodborne illness affects millions of Americans each year. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these cases are never reported to public health officials. Reporting foodborne illness will protect public health and improve our knowledge about foodborne disease.
- Seek medical attention if you are sickened — especially if you have bloody diarrhea, which is a medical emergency.
- Ask to have your stool tested.
- Ask your medical provider to notify the appropriate public health officials if your test is positive.
- Pay close attention to sickness involving infants/ children, the elderly/seniors, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems.
- If you are ill, don’t handle food and avoid social settings, like schools or work environments.
For more information on CFI’s Six Safe Food Practices, please visit www.foodborneillness.org.
What other advice would you give to parents who are worried about food safety issues in their homes?
Kowalyck: My main piece of advice would be to take foodborne illness seriously and learn more about the risks associated with food. Most Americans think of foodborne illness as simply being a bad tummy ache that may or may not send you to the bathroom for 24 hours. My family — and too many others — learned first hand that foodborne illness can be very serious, and for many of the diseases, there is no way to predict or prevent serious complications. It’s almost like playing Russian Roulette.
I know there are people who think that I am over-the-top when it comes to food safety and that I should just recognize that we all live with risk every day. I do understand that — ALL food carries risk whether it is produced industrially, locally or organically.
But I also think there are things that can and should be done to help mitigate those risks. Every day I put my kids into a car and drive them to school. Every time I drive, I know there is a risk for a car accident. While I have some control over the outcome — I use seat belts and avoid risky driving behaviors — I also have to rely heavily on the automakers, the government, the police and other drivers to do their part to keep my family safe. The point is this: I make an informed choice when I put my kids into the car. In 2001, I did not make an informed choice about what I was feeding my kids — I did not know the risks I was taking by feeding my precious children foods associated with serious foodborne illness.
As Americans, we are blessed to live in a really great country where there are many different foods for us to choose from. It is hard — and sometimes expensive — to eat safe and healthy food. But, I look at it as an investment in my family’s health. If we all start voicing our preference for food safety — both in the voting booth and at the cash register — then I believe we will have stronger food protections in this country and tragedies like mine will be prevented.
Are there alerts or other sources of information that you would recommend?
Kowalyck: Yes, I recommend that people add www.foodsafety.gov to their favorites on their computers. This website, which is provided as a joint government collaboration, provides timely information about recalls and public health alerts, as well as researched information about foodborne illness/food safety topics.