The photos set out on the table before Barbara Kowalcyk offer a glimpse of her family nearly two decades ago, just before their lives upended.
In one of the photos, Kowalcyk, her husband, Mike, daughter, Megan, and son, Kevin, stand atop a cliff in Maine, part of an extended vacation. Kevin stands alone, in another photo, his hands and knees resting on a rock with the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean.
Two weeks after that picture was taken, Kevin died at 2½ years old. He suffered complications from an E. coli infection, one that he developed, most likely, from eating contaminated hamburger meat.
An assistant professor of food science and technology at CFAES, Kowalcyk is committed to keeping others from going through what her family did nearly two decades ago.
Kevin woke up one summer morning with diarrhea and a mild fever. Within a couple of days, he was hospitalized for dehydration, and a stool sample revealed that he had an E. coli bacterial infection.
The E. coli strain that infected him, E. coli O157:H7, is the same type that was linked to a multistate recall on romaine lettuce in fall 2018, a spinach recall in 2006, and a Jack in the Box hamburger recall in 1993 that sickened 700 individuals and led to the deaths of four children.
Kevin’s E. coli infection led to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which caused his kidneys to shut down.
“He basically went from being perfectly healthy to dead in 12 days,” Kowalcyk said.
For 10 days in the hospital’s intensive care unit, Barbara, her husband, and other family members agonized as they watched Kevin struggle, become increasingly weak, and then unresponsive. He threw up black bile and emitted a horrible aroma that Kowalcyk can’t describe but will never forget.
He begged for water. For juice. For the turtle pool he swam in at home. Giving him water would only make him worse, doctors warned, but they allowed him to have a sponge bath. As soon as the washcloth came near his mouth, he grabbed it, bit down, and sucked out the water.
On Aug. 11, 2001, the once-curious young boy with blue eyes and sandy brown hair, died.
Reeling with many unanswered questions, Kowalcyk and her husband felt compelled to begin what would become a lengthy and exasperating search to find the source of Kevin’s E. coli infection. In the week before his illness, Kevin had eaten three hamburgers.
Through public records requests, the Kowalcyks discovered that the DNA of Kevin’s E. coli bacterial infection matched that of a meat recall issued in August 2001, a little over two weeks after Kevin died.
The recalled meat came from a producer in Wisconsin, where the Kowalcyks lived at the time. In the year before Kevin passed away, the company’s meat had failed a Salmonella test twice and had a positive, random E. coli test, triggering an earlier recall of ground beef.
“The system failed Kevin,” Kowalcyk said. “If it had worked the way it was supposed to, he likely would not have gotten sick and he would still be alive today.”
By investigating what happened to their son, the Kowalcyks learned how broken and ineffective the food safety system was. Kowalcyk has since dedicated her career to trying to change that system.
As a member of a National Academies of Sciences’ committee, Kowalcyk helped draw up recommendations for reforming the way the Food and Drug Administration oversees food safety.
“There’s still a lot more we can do to improve surveillance and help people realize there is a risk in food, and to help them make decisions that will reduce those risks as much as possible.”Barbara Kowalcyk
“There’s still a lot more we can do to improve surveillance and help people realize there is a risk in food, and to help them make decisions that will reduce those risks as much as possible,” Kowalcyk said.
In 2006, she started the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, which has since become a part of CFAES. The nonprofit organization promotes science-based approaches to preventing illnesses caused by food.
On Capitol Hill, in board rooms, in classrooms, and in interviews with the media, Kowalcyk has told her personal story many times. Sometimes she speaks without hesitation. Sometimes she tears up and can hardly breathe. She never knows when that will happen.
“As difficult as it is to tell that story, what Kevin went through was much harder,” Kowalcyk said.
As shattering as Kevin’s death was, Kowalcyk has also come to view his passing as a catalyst for saving lives. She had never envisioned herself as being out in front of an issue, advocating in such a public way. But the path began to feel right, a path toward ensuring that Kevin’s life would have meaning not just within their family but well beyond.