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Ask a Health Inspector: Eating Snow

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As part of Buncombe County’s Ask a Health Inspector series, local health program specialist Jason Masters answers the age-old question on the safety of eating snow.

Question: Hey Jason, I have a question about snow. I know you are not a meteorologist or anything, but can you tell me if it is safe to eat snow? I have a 4 year old grandson, and he won’t stop shoveling snow in his mouth! Should I be worried? – Carol

Jason Masters: Well, Carol, that’s a great question, and one I’m glad you brought up at such a special time of the year. You know, when I was growing up, I remember standing with my brothers at the front window of our house, all of us jumping up and down, pointing at the snow, and yelling for my mom to open the door so we could go out there in it. She would help us get on our snow suits, and send us out, watching us run around, trying to catch falling snow on our tongues.

Sometimes we would bring in big bowlfuls of snow and she would help us make snow cream. It was a family tradition for all of us kids (and usually the grown-ups, too!) to run outside on New Year’s Day, grab big handfuls of snow, and eat till we couldn’t eat anymore.

The layer of clean, pure white snow would blanket our whole house and yard, and I remember how the barely visible red bows on the fence posts would cast a slight reddish-pink contrast on the crisp shell of the snow. After our hands were freezing and wet, we would go warm up by the fire that my dad built before he left for work, and have mugs of hot chocolate, and my mom would explain to us that the snow signified a blank canvas for the coming year…one we could fill with experiences and memories and whatever else we wanted, and by eating it on New Year’s Day, we were opening ourselves up to whatever possibility may present itself in the coming year. It was a wonderful tradition, and one my family carries on today.

But, to answer your question, we need to know a little bit about why eating snow might be dangerous to our health. *SPOILER ALERT*-it’s not the snow you need to be worried about…If you are familiar with my articles, you already know about hot and cold holding, why it’s important, and keeping food for appropriate times, and discarding food after a certain length of time, but if this is your first time, here it is in a nutshell…to be safe, foods must be maintained at 135º F or above, or at 45º F or below to slow bacterial growth. If foods are maintained in refrigeration between 41 and 45º F, they can be safely held for 4 days. If the foods are maintained at 41º F or below, they may be held for 7 days. After this time, however, they should be discarded. Now, with all that being said, why should we discard these foods after this amount of time, and what in the world does this have to do with eating snow?!?

Well first, let’s take a look at the most obvious reasons that eating snow off the ground might be dangerous. Got any dogs in your neighborhood? Dogs don’t usually use a public restroom, and rarely (if ever) stop to let you know that nature is calling. Let’s think of some other things that might be on the ground…dirt, rocks, lead paint chips… What if the snow is on top of a failing septic system? What if the snow is on the road that DOT just sprayed with salt solution and sand? What if Uncle Adam was just out  smoking a cigarette, and dropped his cigarette butt and ashes right there? (Have you ever accidentally picked up a drink that someone used as an ashtray? I have…its gross…especially when that cigarette butt plinks off your teeth…ugh) Would you eat a cheeseburger that fell on the ground? (and don’t give me any of that “5 second rule” stuff…) If the answer is “no”, then why in the world would you think it would be OK to eat snow off that same ground?!? Ok…I think you get the point here.

Let’s talk for a minute about psychrophilic bacteria. Psychrophilic bacteria are cold-loving organisms that thrive in temperatures ranging from around 32 to 77º F. Remember when I told you to throw food away after 4 days if maintained between 41-45º F, or after 7 days if 41º F or below? Well this is why. Meet Listeria monocytogenes. This guy loves to hang around in your fridge and make you sick, especially if your foods are not maintained at safe temperatures.

And guess what? Listeria loves the same foods you do! Deli meats! Hot Dogs! Soft cheeses! Sprouts! Cantaloupe! Seriously, who doesn’t love these foods?!? Now, Listeria is not the only psychrophile, but based on information about the growth phases of Listeria, the NC food code recommends discarding foods after 4 or 7 days depending on the temperature at which they have been maintained. After that amount of time has passed, the amount of harmful bacteria on food can be enough to make someone sick.

Listeria is especially happy to find a fridge that hasn’t been cleaned in a while…. You know that black stuff in the corners in the back?… Yeah, that’s gonna be a great spot for listeria to set up shop. This brings me back to the snow…temperatures have to be pretty low outside for snow to hang around. Listeria is widely found in the environment…It can live in soil, water, decaying vegetation (remember those leaves you told your significant other you were going to rake last fall, but then you got busy, ’cause, you know…life…and now they are just hanging out under all that beautiful snow, decaying and providing food for the grass that will be so lush in the spring…?) Sounds to me like conditions are just right for Listeria to start multiplying.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t build a snowman, or a snow angel, or an igloo, or make your neighbors take a snowball to the face. I’m just letting you know that if your kid (or grandkid) is dying to eat some snow, then do the little guy a favor, and get it from somewhere ABOVE THE GROUND! And maybe it’s time to let that winter-warmer recipe for your (in)famous sprout/cantaloupe salad with hot dog slivers and bologna chunks and a warm queso blanco topping to go back in the drawer (or in the trash…)

Stay warm and enjoy winter, friends!

SNOW CREAM

  1. Gather a big bowl of fresh, CLEAN snow. You will need a big bowl, and it will need to be nice and full.
  2. Stir in one 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk. You may have to adjust amount according to how much snow you have.
  3. Add a few teaspoons of vanilla extract. (Or go crazy and add some other flavor like orange!)
  4. Mix up and add some toppings like sprinkles, and enjoy!

(Written by Jason Masters of Buncombe County.)