Meeting Barbara Kowalcyk

by Jill Richardson

Jill Richardson, who is the heart and soul of Lavidalocavore, meets Barbara Kowalcyk, the mom who lost her son to E. Coli (and was interviewed in Food Inc) -mb

There was one part of this week that was intensely emotional for me, and that was meeting Barbara Kowalcyk. If her name rings a bell, that’s because you saw her in Food Inc. She was the mother whose son went from perfectly healthy to dead in the span of a few days due to eating E. coli-tainted beef. When I saw Food Inc. I was newly grieving my brother’s death a few months before. Her story just hit me. When I used to see stories of tragedies like that, it made me sad but not overwhelmingly so. It just wasn’t even something I could comprehend in order to empathize with it. But now, now I get it.

So, while mingling with other attendees of the Consumers Union Activist Summit, I saw an attractive woman in a lime green top standing a few feet away from me. Upstairs, a crowd was watching Food Inc, which I was skipping because a) I’ve seen it twice and b) films give me migraines and Food Inc was worth the two migraines I already got from watching it but not a third one. I thought I had heard that Barbara was coming. And I was pretty sure that this woman in green standing near me was her.

So I went up and said, “Have we met yet? I’m Jill.” She held her hand out and said “I’m Barbara Kowalcyk.” I bypassed her hand and went in for a hug, which I think took her by surprise. But if anyone needs a hug, it’s her. My god, she needs more than a hug. She needs her son Kevin back and she needs Kevin’s Law to be passed so no other mothers will ever, ever have to experience the hell she’s gone through ever again.

The Consumers Union activist crowd can be an emotionally intense group. Lots of people have lost family members due to corporate corruption and greed. This Summit included a mom who lost her son to cancer because he couldn’t afford health insurance. Last Summit included a woman whose husband was killed by the drug Zoloft. After these crippling losses (or near losses, in a case of a man I met this week whose son got salmonella from peanut butter last year and lived), these folks somehow find Consumers Union, and Consumers Union makes darn sure that Congress hears their stories (and often the entire nation does too when they get national press coverage).

I wish I couldn’t have had the conversation with Barbara that I did. I wish neither of us were so familiar with the topic of losing a family member. It would have been nice to talk rationally and impersonally about the food safety bill, or something like that. But instead we spoke about the process of grieving dead family members – sons and brothers. My brother didn’t die because of food poisoning, so there’s no bill I can ask Congress to pass that would save brothers for other sisters in America. And I can’t say that I know what Barbara is feeling because grief is individual and idiosyncratic and nobody knows what somebody else feels. But I’ve certainly experienced the hell of losing someone I love, and it outrages me that Barbara has to experience that too and only because some corporation was too cheap and too careless and too sloppy to sell her beef that didn’t have E. coli-tainted cow manure in it.

Food safety becomes so much more real when you meet people whose lives were changed – ruined – forever because of the problems that exist in our food supply. It’s not a joke. This food safety bill is not a game that we are going to win or lose, like our favorite sports team wins or loses. When the Cubs lose or the Padres lose, nobody dies. But for every day that the food in the U.S. remains unsafe, more people will die. Every single day, more people find themselves in the same situation as Barbara Kowalcyk when they lose children, parents, sisters, brothers, spouses, and friends to food poisoning.

Sadly, the bill that’s before the Senate right now – S. 510 – will do roughly NOTHING to make ground beef (or any other beef) safer. It’s targeted at the FDA, which regulates 80% of our food supply but not meat and poultry. That’s the USDA, which is not included in the bill. To get a bill that addresses the USDA, we’d need to get the House and Senate Ag Committees to take action. And, with their current membership, they won’t. Well, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand will take action. Thank god for that. But we need more than just her if we’re going to get something passed into law.

Back to S. 510, I’d like to see the final bits of E. coli-free sausage finished up before the bill comes to a vote. That is, there’s nearly a compromise between those who fear that the bill will harm small farmers and those who fear that any exemption will reduce the bill’s power to make our food safe. Let’s get that compromise finished up, and then let’s put the bill on the Senate floor and have a vote on it. Let’s stop letting more Americans die from food poisoning each year than the number who died in 9/11. We went to war over 9/11, and yet food safety isn’t even important enough for the Senate to bring it to a vote yet.

Posted in Food Politics

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