Barbara Kowalcyk, Ph.D., is a food safety advocate who co-founded the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention after her son, Kevin, died in 2001 from complications of an E. coli O157:H7 infection. Since earning a doctorate in 2011 from the University of Cincinnati in Environmental Health – Epidemiology & Biostatistics, Kowalcyk has been a half-time research assistant professor with North Carolina State University’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing & Nutrition Sciences and also serves as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Besides her academic research work, Kowalcyk participated in Robert Kenner’s acclaimed 2008 documentary “Food, Inc.,” which critiqued facets of U.S. corporate food production, has given many presentations here and abroad on food safety, appeared on the Dr. Oz Show in 2009, and received a $50,000 LennonOno Grant For Peace award in 2010 (along with Michael Pollan, Josh Fox and Alice Walker). She and her husband, Michael Kowalcyk, a health-care econometrician, live in Chapel Hill, NC, and have three surviving children: Megan, 18, Lara, 11, and Christopher, 9. In a March 21 interview with Food Safety News, Kowalcyk talked about her current activities, commented on the status of some controversial food safety issues, and shared her future plans. This is an edited version of that conversation. Food Safety News: You’re a co-sponsor of the change.org petition against importing Chinese-processed chicken into the U.S. How is that effort going, and do you think it might have any effect on the president or Congress? Barbara Kowalcyk: Last time I checked was last week, and there were about 317,000 signers on that petition. It’s a tricky situation because there are some trade issues to deal with. We want labels and we don’t want it going into school nutrition programs. Children are vulnerable to foodborne illness and toxicological exposures. There are lots of concerns based on reports out there about the robustness of Chinese food safety systems, and FSIS will only be going over there once a year on inspections and audits, and there will be advance warning that they’re coming, so I’m very concerned about the oversight there. Our Salmonella rates really haven’t changed over the years despite interventions. Campylobacter rates haven’t really changed. There are several proposals to overhaul slaughter inspection here in the U.S. Obviously there’s concern over poultry, but there are some things that have happened that seem counter-intuitive to me. In the president’s budget for fiscal 2015, the FSIS budget got cut. It’s unclear why that happened other than they’re working to save money. We’re trying to reduce the rates of Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry, so letting Chinese-processed poultry into the U.S. and cutting the budget seems counter-intuitive. If they want to save money, why have inspectors go over and inspect Chinese poultry plants? Why would we be using some of our valuable resources to do that? China has a long history of food safety problems. Raw poultry from Canada, U.S. and Chile can get sent over there and sent back. How do we know we’re getting back what we sent over there? Why, when it gets shipped over there, wouldn’t they swap it out? I’m not saying U.S. companies would do that, but when there’s not much oversight, and our inspectors are only going over there once a year and there’s advance notice and we already know that enforcement is China is fairly inconsistent, I do worry that intentional economic adulteration might occur. We’ve seen melamine put into baby formula and pet treats. … They just aren’t where they need to be. Most people just think it’s a step toward letting raw poultry raised and processed in China be imported into the U.S. FSN: What do you think are the chances of Kevin’s Law passing Congress? (Kevin’s Law, named after Kowalcyk’s son, was introduced in 2005 and, among other provisions, would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to shut down meat and poultry plants which repeatedly violate health standards.) BK: Obviously, I’m still interested in seeing Kevin’s Law passed. We haven’t been working actively on it because we didn’t feel it was likely to be passed in this Congress. Just getting it reintroduced takes a lot of effort working with lawmakers. Key elements were included in FSMA, but that only applies to FDA. It’s not as strong as Kevin’s Law was for USDA. We’d like to see it passed eventually. The other issue is we have been working with other consumer groups to get Salmonella declared as an adulterant. I still think it’s needed, but it’s not moving anywhere right now. That has nothing to do with the quality of the issue or the legislation itself; it’s just the political dynamic right now. FSN: Will the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) help? BK: I hope that it does. My concern is that one, we’re doing the first major overhaul of FDA’s oversight of food in 70 years. That is a big, big job. The rulemaking process always takes a long time. It’s further complicated by the fact that we are trying to do a major overhaul. Not necessarily surprising that they haven’t met all their deadlines. They would be hard to meet in this situation even if everything was ideal, and it isn’t because FSMA hasn’t really been funded. The agency is doing its best given the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we back off and let these things slide. We do need to have FSMA fully funded so we can get it implemented. I can see why they’re not meeting the deadlines. I don’t feel that they’ve been given the resources to do it as effectively as possible. … Sometimes the appropriators aren’t very realistic about what can and can’t be done on a given budget. One thing FSMA mandates is for CDC to improve surveillance efforts, and they have some serious challenges coming down the pike on surveillance. I call that the forgotten one because they aren’t getting more money to do this. We have a complicated task that’s trying to be done and, yes, everybody could do a better job, but resources are a big issue. FSN: You’ve had some high-profile venues in which to make your case: Food, Inc., the LennonOno award, being a guest on Dr. Oz’s show. What are your reflections on those experiences? BK: After a while, you learn that, yes, I got taped, but I’m just as likely to end up on the cutting room floor. When I saw “Food, Inc.,” I thought it was really good, so it didn’t surprise me that it got the kind of accolades that it did. It’s more about the exposure for the issue. Sometimes people recognize me in public, certainly not like a celebrity or anything. They’ll say, “Were you in a movie or something?” It gets people talking. FSN: What’s your sense of the level of education and involvement in food safety among the U.S. public now? BK: I think there’s a greater awareness that food safety is a problem than there was maybe 15 years ago, and that’s partly because we’ve had some pretty high-profile outbreaks. … While we’ve made progress, there’s still a lot to be done. Really we’re talking about changing culture, and it’s hard to change culture. We’re trying to change the way people look at food and food safety. There needs to be more transparency with food safety and the American public. It’s going to take all of us working together (industry, government, etc.). Telling people you might get sick from the food you’re eating is not a popular message. We’re always telling people that the United States has the safest food safety system in the world. That’s doesn’t mean it’s safe, just that it’s safest. Most people don’t hear relative terms. FSN: We’ve recently seen a huge beef recall involving Rancho Feeding Corporation and outbreaks like the nationwide Foster Farms-related Salmonella one, although no recall has yet occurred there. Any thoughts about how to prevent or better handle those kinds of events? Is USDA recall authority the answer? BK: Well, I think it obviously is. This is another area where the public didn’t really understand that recalls are voluntary, not mandatory, and the best USDA can do is ask nicely to recall the product and they can say, no, we’re not going to do that. When I tell somebody that, they’re floored, so getting the message out there on a broader level is needed. We need to give USDA the tools they need. Obviously recall is one and broader enforcement standards authority is the other. The fact is that is what drove changes in industry standards. It’s a policy issue; scientifically, we can never get to zero. The policy side of me says this is what we need to do to drive improvements. This is the goal we want to work toward. FSN: If there was one single thing you could change in our food safety system, what would it be? BK: If I had the power to do anything, I’d create a single food agency for food safety in particular. The realist is me recognizes that’s probably not going to happen for a very long time, so in the absence of that, one of the things I think we need around food safety … is an independent risk analysis and data management center. We could identify problems earlier and get into predictions and bring that all together, which would do a lot to improve food safety. FSN: What are your future plans? BK: Being a junior faculty member, I’m working on a lot of grants. Besides FSMA, I’m looking at poultry issues and trying to harness diverse steps to improve food safety. Quite frankly, that’s enough to keep me busy. We are facing a significant food safety workforce shortage. Simply to meet capacity, they need 300-400 more foodborne disease epidemiologists. There is growing demand for them. In schools of public health, there isn’t a strong demand for food safety because there aren’t a lot of research dollars there. I don’t know who’s going to train those 300-400 people. How do we improve surveillance when state and territorial epidemiologists need people to do investigations? Epidemiology does drive investigation – potential problems and how to intervene. There’s not much research money in that area. It’s the poor stepchild of the poor stepchild. Most of what happens at the state and local level on the public health side of food safety is funded through CDC grants. The food safety budget, including what CDC does and pretty much what happens on the state and local level, is only $25 million.