LennonOno Grant for Peace Award Ceremony

Comments by Barbara Kowalcyk

October 9, 2010, Iceland


First, I would like to thank Ms. Ono for selecting me as one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious LennonOno Grant for Peace. I am deeply honored and humbled that my work in food safety is being recognized by such a great champion for world peace and that I have been included in such an esteemed group of individuals. More importantly, however, this award will help focus international attention on the fundamental importance of food safety to a healthy civil society in the United States and globally.


Just before he was elected President of the United States, John F. Kennedy stated “Food is strength, and food is peace and food is freedom, and food is a helping hand to people around the world whose goodwill and friendship we want.” Since then, declarations by several international organizations – including the World Health Organization, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – have affirmed that safe and adequate food is a basic human right. In essence, they are acknowledging that safe food and water are essential to human life and fundamental components of global health and peaceful development. Unfortunately, safe food and water are increasingly in short supply.


Over the past hundred years, the way we produce, process and distribute food has changed drastically. Most of our food is no longer produced and consumed locally. Meat consumption has increased dramatically, seasonal fruits and vegetables are now available year round and processed foods – with ingredients coming from around the world – have become a staple in our diets. In fact, the importation and exportation of food has become a driving force in the global economy. In 2005 alone, 21 billion food animals were raised to help feed the world’s 6.5 billion people and the global demand for animal-based products is expected to continue to rise. Since the majority of human diseases have originated from animals, the production and distribution of these products can have a significant and widespread impact on human health.


In fact, foodborne illness is a serious global health issue. According to the World Health Organization, over two million people – mostly children – die each year from diarrheal disease and many of these illnesses can be attributed to contaminated food and/or water. While developing countries carry most of this burden, industrialized countries are also greatly affected with reports that up to 30% suffer a foodborne illness each year. In the United States – which claims to have the safest food supply in the world – foodborne illness causes an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year. These illnesses cost the United States an estimated $152 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year. Not included in these estimates are the secondary long-term health effects – such as reactive arthritis, diabetes and kidney failure – which are estimated to occur in 2 to 3% of all cases. That may not sound like a lot but, in the United States that translates into 1.5 million lingering health problems each year! Sadly, the most vulnerable populations – children, pregnant and post-partum women, senior citizens and anyone with a compromised immune system – run the highest risk of developing serious complications and secondary long-term health outcomes. With globalization of our food supply, foodborne diseases can quickly and easily be spread causing problems not just for public health but national economies as well. Large outbreaks and recalls can shake consumer confidence and lead to the destruction of products and loss of export markets, often with rippling effects. Consider the 2003 discovery of a BSE-infected cow in the United States that led many countries to close their borders to U.S. beef imports. Or the 2008 tomato/pepper Salmonella outbreak that was eventually traced to contaminated irrigation water on a Mexican farm – but not before thousands of acres of tomato crops were destroyed in the United States. The impact extended far beyond the farmers and those sickened – everyone associated with the oversight, production, sale, and consumption of those products was affected. In countries where foodborne illness is widespread, “shocks to the system” are further compounded by a weakened labor force and a population where lingering illness is a constant reality.


Clearly, emerging infectious diseases and food contamination – as well as the sustainability of agriculture and the safety of our water – are growing and difficult challenges for the 21st Century. Given the global nature of our food supply and our increasingly limited resources, it is clear that we need a more holistic and sustainable risk-based approach to food and food safety that focuses on prevention and integrates human, animal and environmental health. In fact, human, animal and environmental health are totally dependent on each other – improvements in one area will lead to improvements overall. This concept of interconnectedness is often referred to as “One Health” and is readily applicable to food safety. Consider the 2006 spinach outbreak in the United States that resulted in four deaths and hundreds of illnesses – all from eating something healthy. The contaminated spinach came from a relatively small farm in California’s Salinas Valley – which happened to be downhill from a cattle farm that was infected with E. coli O157:H7. Run-off from the farm contaminated a nearby stream that was a drinking source for wild pigs in the area. As the pigs fertilized the spinach fields, the bacterium entered the soil and was absorbed into the plants. Unfortunately, while the “One Health” approach was used to “solve” this outbreak, the approach has not been widely applied to disease prevention and health promotion. Sadly, this is not at all surprising to me. Changing the way people approach food and its connections to health is not easy. But, if we hope to meet the food and water challenges of the 21st Century, we absolutely must integrate prevention and the “One World, One Health” philosophy into our food safety culture. Achieving that will take international cooperation with participation from all stakeholders, including those present here today.


In 2006, recognizing that foodborne illness will be an ongoing public health issue in the years to come and the need for a new approach, my family founded the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (CFI). I wish I could say that we founded CFI simply because we were concerned citizens – but as many of you may know from the documentary Food, Inc – our work is driven largely by our grief over the death of our beautiful 2 ½ year old son Kevin from an E. coli O157:H7 infection in 2001. For twelve days, our family helplessly watched our child suffer unbearable pain, endure continuous dialysis and become so weakened that he needed a ventilator to breathe. Weeks later, we learned that Kevin died of gangrene of the large and small intestine – a brutal death. Two years later, we learned that Kevin matched a meat recall issued 16 days after he died – unfortunately, despite numerous attempts, we were never able to conclusively prove that the recalled meat caused his illness. The horrific nature of Kevin’s illness and the obstacles we encountered, as we tried to figure out how this could have happened, shocked us and opened our eyes to a very serious public health problem. Through founding CFI, my family has worked hard to channel our grief into advocating for a new approach to food safety, in hopes that it will prevent our tragedy from happening to others.


CFI’s mission is to improve public health by preventing foodborne disease through its four program areas: research, education, advocacy and service. To achieve this, CFI facilitates, conducts and encourages others to conduct research that increases our knowledge about foodborne illness and/or leads to science-based, public health solutions to current and future food safety challenges. In 2009, CFI issued a white paper on what is currently known about the long-term health impacts of foodborne illness and is currently exploring mechanisms for systematically studying these impacts. In addition, as part of my doctoral program in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Environmental Health, I am currently working in the Netherlands on two studies at the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment. One is a Campylobacter attribution study that will explore the sources of infections and the other will examine the risk of irritable bowel syndrome following acute gastroenteritis.


CFI also plays an important role in educating about the scope and impact of foodborne illness and providing consumers, physicians and others with the information they need to make informed choices about food. CFI subscribes to the World Health Organization’s Five Keys to Safer Food – Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill and Use safe food and water. CFI has also added a sixth safe food practice – report foodborne illness – because reporting is so critical to understanding the trends, sources, and burden of foodborne disease and developing effective prevention strategies.


CFI also applies its knowledge of science and public policy to improve awareness about foodborne illness and we advocate, on behalf of consumers, for more effective food safety policies. We speak regularly at public meetings, conferences, industry events and through media outlets about the impact of foodborne illness and steps that can be taken throughout the system to prevent foodborne disease. We also provide input to policy makers and regulators by serving on multiple national advisory committees, including two National Academies of Science committees.


Finally, CFI seeks to serve those affected by serious foodborne illness and those working to improve public health by preventing foodborne disease. Recognizing the financial strain that serious foodborne illness can cause families, and the crisis that the world is facing in its public health capacity, we are working to develop a scholarship program dedicated to helping these individuals achieve their goals.


Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” It is one of my favorite quotes and I reflect on it regularly. I am but one of many thoughtful, committed citizens who are working on this important global health issue. Around the world, there are individuals in academia, government, industry, consumer groups, health organizations, and the media who are working diligently to find new solutions to the food challenges of the 21st Century. Their dedication inspires me to continue my fight to improve food safety, even when the world seems unchangeable. There are the families, like mine, who use their voices to bring the reality of foodborne illness to the forefront – and those, like the producers of Food, Inc., who help our voices be heard around the world. And last, but certainly not least, there are those who have personally stood by me and provided unending support – some of them are here today – my colleagues at CFI, my mentors, my parents, my siblings, my wonderful husband Michael, who is often my silent partner but just as dedicated and devoted to this cause as I am, and my beautiful children – Megan, Kevin, Lara, and Christopher – who remind me every day why my work is my passion. Each one of them, in their own way, is working with me to change the world by improving food safety and preventing foodborne disease. Therefore, on behalf of all families who have been impacted by foodborne illness and on behalf of those working to improve food safety around the world, I would like to thank Ms. Ono for this award and for recognizing the vital role that food safety plays in global health and creating world peace.


Thank you.