When you’ve been out for dinner at a fabulous restaurant and hours later you find yourself sweating, shaking, gagging, and heaving over the toilet bowl, you can comfort yourself with one fact: your community — the worldwide community of sweating, shaking, gagging heavers — is about as large as the population of India. Every year, according to Dr. David Waltner-Toews in his book Food, Sex, and Salmonella, a billion people suffer the often hideous effects of food- and waterborne diseases. Two million of them, mostly young children, die. But does anyone really want to talk about this — let alone read an entire book about it? With numbers like that, and with this problem growing worse every year, he writes, it’s simply necessary.
“There is no such disease as the stomach flu,” Waltner-Toews, a veterinarian and epidemiologist who specializes in the illnesses people get from animals, announces early on in the book. In fact, we find out in glorious detail what the culprits really are — viruses, bacteria, and parasites, all delivered to us through food and water — and why their impact is growing: the international food trade; changes in climate, eating habits, and agricultural practices; overuse of antibacterials. But fortunately, Waltner-Toews’s romp through the gastrointestinal tract is just that. There’s no hysteria or apocalyptic ranting — just straight storytelling laced with one-liners that will likely haunt readers. Improperly cooked hamburgers, he writes, “are really just cases of diarrhea and vomiting waiting for stomachs to happen”; “drinking bottled water every day is like using a toilet bowl brush to clean your teeth.”
The point, though, is not to create fear of food or of eating, but to educate, because food- and water- borne diseases are a fact of life. Learning to eat wisely — sticking to locally grown, organic food whenever possible — is the key. Safe eating doesn’t need to be boring, he insists. But it does mean keeping exotic food to a minimum, because, as with sex, “promiscuity in eating habits and ignorance of eating ‘partners’ can carry great risks.”