When I moved into my current home a few years back, I discovered (a few weeks later) on Halloween that one of my neighbors is a professional choclatier, when a pair of insanely delicious home-made caramel candy apples were delivered to my house as a "reverse trick-or-treat." It was definitely a nice "welcome to the neighborhood" moment. However, even though I knew I could trust these apples, it immediately brought me back to when I was a kid, when there were all these big scary news stories about people poisoning candy and putting razors in caramel candy apples for neighborhood trick-or-treaters. I remember my parents followed the evening news' recommendations of immediately taking the bags of candy we came home with and to spread them out on the kitchen table to go through them looking for exposed candy or loose wrappers to dump in the garbage. It was serious business. These days, many places are so worried about the scary poisoning/razor-blading neighbors that they've officially tried to move trick-or-treating to local businesses away from residences.
I'd never really thought much about the scare stories and whether or not they true. When I was a kid, I assumed of course they were true. It was being reported on the news, and I think my school sent home paper warnings as well. How could it not be true? However, Samira Kawash, who is apparently an expert in "candy," is writing a series of posts about Halloween, and one of them notes that the whole story of poisoned/razor-bladed Halloween candy from sadistic neighbors is almost entirely a myth
. The number of children really harmed by such things? "Approximately zero."
It turns out that the Halloween sadist is about 1 percent fact and 99 percent myth. One California dentist in 1959 did pass out candy-coated laxatives, and some kids got bad stomachaches. But instances over the past 40 years where children were allegedly harmed by tainted candy have invariably fallen apart under scrutiny. In some cases, there was evidence that someone (a family member) was attempting to harm a particular child under cover of Halloween. In other cases, poisoning which had another cause was misattributed to candy. Not surprisingly, the myth created its own reality: As the stories of Halloween tampering spread, some kids got the idea of faking tampering as a sort of prank. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the myth persists.
Of course, in retrospect, this makes sense. We see stories all the time these days of the press (and sometimes groups of parents) creating a moral panic around some dubious piece of information about "harm to children" that never seems to stand up to any serious scrutiny. But, as Kawash notes, "the myth persists." And, while they may not be the reason the myth started or persisted, the main beneficiaries of the myth were the big candy companies, who actually have been linked to health problems at industrial food processing plants:
Wrappers are like candy condoms: Safe candy is candy that is covered and sealed. And not just any wrapper will do. Loose, casual, cheap wrappers, the kind of wrappers one might find on locally produced candies or non-brand-name candies, are also liable to send candy to Halloween purgatory. The close, tight factory wrapper says "sealed for your protection." And the recognized brand name on the wrapper also lends a reassuring aura of corporate responsibility and accountability. It's a basic axiom of consumer faith: The bigger the brand, the safer the candy.
Ironic, since we know that the most serious food dangers are those that originate from just the kind of large-scale industrial food processing environments that also bring us name-brand, mass-market candies. Salmonella, E. coli, and their bacterial buddies lurking in bagged salads and pre-formed hamburger patties are real food dangers; home-made cookies laced with ground glass are not.
Kawash notes that all of this has come at the cost of good, home-made treats, which actually may have been safer for kids. So, as we hit Halloween weekend, I'm sure you'll have plenty of opportunities for eating processed candy options, but perhaps it's time to put an end to the old myth.