It was about 30 years ago that the modern Halloween trick-or-treat era began the era when real-world fear of razor blades and poison in Halloween candy led parents to frantically sort out anything from the treat bag that wasn't tightly packaged, without a nick or tear. It was 1982 that unofficially saw the last homemade popcorn ball or candy apple consumed, at least without a nervous mom hovering over.
"Halloween of 1982 was the year it all went crazy," Barbara Mikkelson wrote on Snopes.com, the Website devoted to debunking urban legends. "That year saw a number of tragic and random non-Halloween poisonings of both foodstuffs and medicines, including the Tylenol poisonings that killed seven people. Although the 'crazed madman tampering with kids' Halloween treats' had been an established bogeyman for at least the previous fifteen years ... it was in the aftermath of the Tylenol poisonings that a sudden spate of Halloween tampering reports erupted."
But no one was poisoned. A few pins and razors have been found in Halloween treats over the years, but an estimated 75% of the small number of reported cases were simple childhood hoaxes, no doubt inspired by media coverage of other childhood hoaxes.
Not surprisingly, sales of packaged Halloween candies have soared in the opposite direction. Every year in the week before Halloween, Americans buy almost 600 million pounds of sugary, calorie-heavy Halloween treats, at an estimated cost of $2 billion, according to Nielsen.
So is it time for parents to start making homemade Halloween treats again? Is it time for the parents on the receiving end to start trusting their neighbors if fruit or candy apples of homemade candies are dropped in the bag? After all, the local food movement, which mutually reinforces the movement to reinvigorate local communities, is now so strong that many parents of trick-or-treaters should be ready to take their homecooking out of the potluck dinner and into the trick-or-treat transaction. Right?
I decided to ask our friend Marion Nestle, the NYU nutritionist who famously argues for better nutrition, transparent marketing, safer food regulations and other sanity in the U.S. food system.
"I think you would be fighting a losing battle," Nestle cautioned, when I asked her what she thought. "The idea that homemade candy or fruit is dangerous is so ingrained in the culture that parents will either not accept them or throw them out the minute they get home. Halloween, like Thanksgiving, is one of those times when nutrition advice goes out the window. Peanuts are out because of allergies. Who knows what horrors might lurk in popcorn balls. I can think of loads of reasonably healthy treats but every one of them will be rejected for one reason or another. I guess the question to ask is whether it's hopeless to try to control what kids get at Halloween."
The government agrees, incidentally. Among the Food and Drug Administration's Halloween food safety tips for parents are these recommendations:
* Tell children not to accept and especially not to eat anything that isn't commercially wrapped.
* Inspect commercially wrapped treats for signs of tampering, such as an unusual appearance or discoloration, tiny pinholes, or tears in wrappers. Throw away anything that looks suspicious.
How often would The Daily Green recommend doing less than the FDA recommends, when it comes to food safety? Not often. Probably never. Except in this instance, this particular losing battle.
What do you think? As a parent, would you hand out homemade treats or unwrapped fruit to neighborhood kids both those you know well and don't know at all? Would you, as a parent, let your child eat a homemade treat, if it's from a neighbor you know well? What about if it's from a stranger who lives down the road ... in an otherwise uncreepy house?
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