October 31, 2011

Tricks in the Treats: The Myth of Poisoned Halloween Candy

Eryn Brown
October 29, 2011
Los Angeles Times

Every year, parents and police departments worry about tricks in their kids' Halloween treats: razor blades in apples, poison in candy bars.

But incidents of candy poisoning are very, very rare -- if they exist at all.

"There have never been any substantiated cases of strangers tampering with Halloween candy," said Susan Whiteside, in an email to Booster Shots Friday. Whiteside is a spokesperson for the National Confectioners Assn., which provides an FAQ on Halloween candy safety and coordinates with law enforcement to track reports of tainted treats.

The Los Angeles Times has written about popular misconceptions about tampered Halloween candy. In this report from 1985, Anne C. Roark noted that one L.A.-area hospital had been X-raying candy for four years and never found anything. Four years later, columnist Mike Spencer pounded the message home, calling candy poisoning "a myth."

Both stories featured the work of sociologist Joel Best. In the 1980s, Best was a professor at Cal State Fresno; today he teaches at the University of Delaware. He has devoted almost 30 years to debunking the "Halloween sadism" myth, addressing it in books and scholarly papers and at great length on his website (where you can find updated information, including a catalog of reports of Halloween poisonings that later turned out to have other explanations).

"Halloween sadism is best seen as a contemporary legend (sometimes called an urban legend,)" he writes on the website. "Contemporary legends are ways we express anxiety. Note that concerns about Halloween tend to be particularly acute in years when some sort of terrible recent crime has heightened public fears."

Best points out, for example, that the Sept. 11 attacks were followed by warnings against visiting malls on Halloween.

(For more on Best's work, check out this interview, posted on Tuesday, with USC sociologist Karen Sternheimer. This lengthy Snopes.com discussion of Halloween poisonings also mentions his research.)

It still makes sense to look over kids' candy haul before letting them dig in. This Halloween safety site from the Centers for Disease Control advises trick-or-treaters to "eat only factory-wrapped treats" and to "examine all treats for choking hazards and tampering before eating them." In addition to more predictable warnings, the Food and Drug Administration cautions against tasting raw cookie dough and recommends making sure juice or cider served at parties is pasteurized.

For the most part, the dangers lurk elsewhere: in those creepy decorative contact lenses that give you lizard eyes (which are often sold improperly and used incorrectly, according to the FDA); in fireworks; in choking; and especially, with inattentive or drunk drivers. Want a safe Halloween? Make sure your little Angry Bird, astronaut or witch looks both ways before crossing the street. Carrying a flashlight is a good idea too.