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These Are the Real Horrors of Halloween, According to a Food Safety Expert

From bobbing for apples to eating candy of unknown origin, Halloween can actually be pretty gross.
Photo via Flickr user Jamal Fanaian

Usually, when a stranger offers candy to a child, it's a huge red flag.

Yet, during Halloween, this behavior is not only tolerated, but encouraged, often under duress from children forcing a "trick-or-treat" ultimatum onto adults.

Usually, the horror stories we hear around Halloween revolve around psychos putting pins and razor blades in candies destined for children. But we here at MUNCHIES, thanks to not one, but two experts, have largely debunked the urban legend of children being injured by razor blades, poison, or weed-infused candies.

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READ MORE: Stop X-Raying Your Kid's Halloween Candy

Sure, incidents of intentionally tainted candies do arise on occasion, but, for the most part, razor-blade-stuffed Kit Kats are the stuff of urban legend among sugar-high American children. But there are more pressing and more common threats to the well-being of costumed little ones.

Dr. Rick Holley is a food safety and food microbiology professor at the University of Manitoba. We spoke to Holley about the dangers of Halloween—both real and perceived—from weed edibles to razor blades to sketchy apples.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Rick. According to the US Census, 41.2 million kids trick-or-treat every year. Why do you think taking candy from strangers is such a widely accepted thing at Halloween? Rick Holley: Culture is a funny thing. Our customs are part of the fabric of things that we've come to expect to be normal. Under most sets of circumstances, the hazards are pretty minimal with those sorts of things.

As a food safety expert, what are the main things that people should be vigilant about before they head out trick-or-treating? There are a range of things to be aware of, depending on the age of the children involved. Before the kids go out, the first thing would be for parents sit with them and have a meal. That way, the kids don't snack on the candies that they pick up during their tour, before you, as an adult, have the opportunity to screen them for potential hazards. It's important for parents to throw out anything that hasn't been packaged commercially, or if the wrapping material has been violated in any fashion—if there's a rip or tear or small hole.

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Photo via Flickr user David Wiley

What about baked goods? Homemade food products are not on the menu, in this particular event. There is risk associated with that. While many folks who prepare home-cooked food for kids are well-meaning, the best thing to do is avoid these because of the usual risks associated with preparing food at home.

For the most part, Halloween treats are mass-produced chocolate bars and candies. What are the main concerns for these products? The risk is that the material might be formulated with something that's hazardous to health, whether it's chemical or physical hazard of one sort or another. The risks are usually generated as a result of an unsavory fraction of the population at large that wants to cause injury, for no apparent reason. We see it at every step of the way. There is no way to completely erase that risk.

The other thing that is significant [at Halloween] is the costume, it should definitely be made of a fire-retardant material. It's also a good idea for kids not to wear masks, but non-allergenic face paint instead, so that there isn't restricted vision.

That doesn't sound like a whole bunch of fun for young kids. Doesn't this take some of the enjoyment out of Halloween? It might diminish the informality to a certain extent, but when the kids are young and they're growing up with these more reasonable standards, I don't think it takes away that much from the moment.

That being said, apple-bobbing seems kind of gross—a bunch of kids biting apples from a communal bowl and getting saliva in there. Is apple-bobbing considered hygienic? If we completely sterilize the activities and the environment that we raise our children in, are we doing a favor? Common sense here. The water has to be clean, the apples have to be clean. Keep an eye on the children and make sure that none of them are showing signs of respiratory illnesses and I think everything is okay.

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What about candied apples? One of the things that happened a few years ago was listeria in candied apples. They were commercially manufactured. There were 35 hospitalizations and seven deaths. In this case, seven folks were pregnant and one lost a child, and three children [got] meningitis as a result of eating candied apples. And we're talking about apples sold through Costco and other big retailers. That experience should illustrate that commercially prepared candied apples should be avoided. It turns out that the stick injured the tissue in the apple and allowed the bacteria that was naturally present to grow to large numbers, and that [was what got] the kids sick. So avoid those!

They're delicious, but I'll take your word for it, I guess. What about weed edibles? Is that something kids and parents should worry about? I think this goes back to what I said earlier about homemade products—avoid them. (Laughs) You're a responsible reporter.

Because of your job, you see the very worst of what can happen when people aren't careful with that they eat. Do you think you have a skewed perspective, and might be overly cautious? It depends on perspective. I don't think I do, but when we get together at dinner parties, the discussion gravitates toward thing associated with food safety and those discussions can be centered around the bad things that happen and that's not good. There has never been any attempt on my part to make anybody paranoid about the issue of food safety. In large measure, the proportion of illnesses that are caused are relatively [small compared] to incredible numbers of meals, and in Halloween candy, that we consume [just once] a year, is very, very small. So I think that when push comes to shove, you have to have a pragmatic approach.

So, once it's been properly screened, what's your favorite Halloween candy? Caramilk. Oh, yeah. It's kind of cool how they get the caramel in the bar. You have to be a food scientist to appreciate that.

How does Cadbury do it? They use a slurry of sugar and they put an enzyme in there called invertase, which breaks the sugar down into glucose and fructose, which are liquid. So the invertase makes it go from solid to liquid. Also, [I like] Bounty's Cherry Blossom; I don't know if that's still popular today, but I liked it as a child. Anyway, it's a lump of chocolate with a cherry floating around in the middle, and they did that the same way—by using invertase.

Thank you for sharing this secret with us and keep them kids safe this year. My pleasure, thank you.