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Grandson's death turns Grove City woman into fighter for safe meat laws

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

By Karen Hoffmann, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After years of waiting to go back to school and finish college, Patricia Buck was offered her dream position in 2001 as a reading specialist.

Kevin Kowalcyk, in a family photo.

But she had to turn it down. By then, the plight of her grandson Kevin had taken over the Grove City woman's life, and she was about to become a full-time activist, which last week saw her pushing for food safety legislation that is named for her grandson.

On the day of Buck's job offer two years ago, 2-year-old Kevin Kowalcyk had only one more day to live. Less than two weeks before, the healthy little boy had become ill in Mount Horeb, Wis., after eating tainted meat -- his family believes it was hamburger.

With the bacterium E. coli O157:H7 attacking his organs and digestive system, Kevin wasn't allowed to eat or drink, but he was too young and sick to understand why his family wouldn't relieve his terrible thirst.

"Kevin begged us to give him water or juice, but the doctors said it would only make him worse," said Barbara Kowalcyk, Kevin's mother and Buck's daughter, in a speech at the University of Dayton. "He repeatedly asked to swim in his turtle -- a pool we used at home. Kevin finally convinced us to give him a sponge bath and, as soon as the washcloth came near his mouth, he grabbed it, bit down on it and sucked the water out of it."

"For those 12 days," Patricia Buck added, "we thought he was going to get better because they were saying, 'Most kids don't die from it.' It was very, very horrific and very painful. I can't believe that at 2 1/2 years of age you could have the amount of courage that little boy had."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens, including Listeria monocytogenes, salmonella and Campylobacter, each year kill more than 5,000 Americans and cause 76 million to become ill and 325,000 to be hospitalized.

Children under age 10 have the highest incidence of E. coli O157:H7 disease. Dr. Jay Varma, of the foodborne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control, said the center did not have an estimate of how many American children die each year from food-borne illness, but said the number was low.

Unfortunately, Kevin Kowalcyk was one of those children.

His grandmother said she became an advocate largely because "I felt like I had let my own grandson down because I hadn't become more active on food and food safety. I just wasn't willing to let that happen again."

She admits that lobbying Congress has been a new experience for her.

"I'm actually just a person who lives in Grove City who's been thrown into this arena that I know nothing about," said Buck.

She hasn't looked for any other teaching jobs since then. "All of my free time and free money goes to trying to teach people about food safety," she said. She has visited high schools, day care centers and senior citizen centers. She has stopped mothers in the supermarket because they fed their children unwashed grapes straight from the bag.

She became involved with lawmakers almost by accident.

Eight months after Kevin's death, Buck encouraged her daughter to get involved with Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a nonprofit food safety organization, to help her feel better. Kowalcyk was asked to go to Washington, but she was pregnant and couldn't travel, so Buck went instead. She talked to representatives and senators. "It was the first time I was ever involved in anything like this," she said.

Despite being insulted by industry lobbyists -- she said one told her, "Lady, you don't understand the economics of it all. Americans want their Dollar Menu" -- she continued to fight what has been an uphill battle.

"That lobbyist made my blood boil. I came home and I called my pregnant daughter and I said, 'Barb, I don't have enough time or money to fight this. The thing that might work is a petition.' "

She and Kowalcyk started a petition for safer meat on April 1, 2002. When Buck had collected 1,000 signatures from people in Pennsylvania, she approached Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., at a town meeting. He said he would cosponsor a bill to boost the Agriculture Department's enforcement powers.

And she kept collecting signatures.

"I collected them at Strawberry Days here in Grove City," she said. "I set up a thing in the mall in Sharon."

More signatures were gathered by her friends, STOP and her family. Her daughter, a graduate of the University of Dayton, gave a presentation there and collected signatures. And when Eric Schlosser, author of critically acclaimed "Fast Food Nation," came to speak at West Virginia University, where her son had just received a doctorate, she set up a table and collected signatures there.

She then presented Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, with a box of 6,000 signatures from people in 36 states.

On May 22, Harkin, Specter and five co-sponsors reintroduced the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction and Enforcement Act in the Senate, and Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Phil English, R-Pa., along with nine co-sponsors, reintroduced it in the House.

The bill was introduced last year by Harkin but never came to a vote. He renamed it "Kevin's Law" in August.

The bill grew out of two enforcement cases in which meat processing companies were able to thwart the Agriculture Department's enforcement measures.

One involved Supreme Beef Processors Inc., which the department wanted to shut down because the firm had exceeded the contamination limit for salmonella three times. But a federal judge ruled in 2000 that the USDA did not have that authority because its regulations were not backed up by enabling legislation. In 2001, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

In August 2002, the department was prevented from shutting down another plant, a subsidiary of Nebraska Beef Ltd., where inspectors had found hamburger contaminated with E. coli. The company and the department settled that case in late January.

The problem lies with regulations the department drafted in 1995 known as the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, which are designed to identify places in meat processing where contamination can occur and prevent it.

But the regulations are not a law, and even when an inspector finds contamination, as in the cases of Supreme Beef and Nebraska Beef, the company can challenge the department's attempt to shut it down.

"It's important that these two court cases don't undo what has already been done" to ensure meat safety, Buck said. "Kevin's Law will divert that from happening." English said last week that the bill would add "language that allows the feds to do what they want to do."

Despite the opposition of the meat industry, and the demands on her time and energy, Buck perseveres.

"Anytime I think I'm not going to do this anymore, I just think about looking in Kevin's eyes," she said. "And I think, 'I've got to do this, because there are other kids out there who are really suffering.' "

Karen Hoffmann can be reached at khoffmann@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1994.

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