I heard it in my own kitchen, “it is fine ‘cause of the five-second rule.” My sons were talking about that much-quoted saying that means when dropped food is on the floor less than five seconds, it won’t be a problem in the food safety arena. Their assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
Food safety should be of utmost concern for all of us. Unfortunately, the incidence of food safety outbreaks are far more common than we believe. Last year, 800 people became sick from tainted cucumbers from Mexico and over 50 from salmonella at Chipotle restaurants. We have become accustomed to periodic recalls due to contamination and reports of improperly handled food in restaurants.
However, the truth is that we are far more likely to be contaminated in our own kitchens. Food service establishments have rules and procedures to guard against food contamination. At home, these structures are rarely in place.
It is true that scientific research has been conducted to see if food dropped on the floor five seconds or less is safe from contamination. At the University of Illinois, researchers swabbed the floors in the dorm, the cafeteria and the lab to see if microorganisms were present, and, surprisingly, there were few in evidence. So, in the best scientific manner, they tried again with the same results — very few microorganisms. They figured out that since the floors were dry, there were few opportunities for microbiological growth since these all need moisture to grow.
Along with the research, they surveyed people to ask if they knew about the five-second rule and if they followed it. Fifty-six percent of men and 70 percent of women knew of the rule. Not surprisingly, those who were surveyed were more likely to invoke the rule when they dropped a cookie or candy, but not when the dropped food was broccoli or cauliflower.
Those famous researchers on Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” also studied the rule. They found that the time was almost of no consequence. Whether it was in on the floor for five seconds or five minutes didn’t matter as much as the fact that it touched a contaminated surface.
So let’s use a little reason to talk about this subject. Microorganisms need moisture to survive and thrive. In addition, moist surfaces will absorb microorganisms easier since the surface is slightly sticky. Dry surfaces, either the food or the floor, will have less opportunity to transfer the germs. If the food is moist and/or sticky and it hits the floor, there is a good chance of contamination. So those dry cookies and candy are less likely to pick up contamination from the floor than a steak.
If you do drop something and it is possible, simply wash the surface to dislodge any surface contamination. Bacteria is everywhere and over 10 types, including salmonella and E. coli, cause some type of intestinal upset.
When it comes to the five-second rule, there are three important things to think about.
A clean-looking floor isn’t necessarily clean. Most of the bacteria that we are concerned about are so small that they are invisible to the eye. Bacteria is also so prevalent in the environment that nearly all surfaces have some amount of harmful bacteria waiting for the opportunity to grow.
Fast may not be quick enough. Bacteria can attach to your food as soon as it touches, particularly if the surface is moist or sticky.
When in doubt, throw it out. Some microorganisms are harmless, but some will cause you to have gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea and flu-like symptoms. Those same bacteria may sit in your system for as long as two weeks before they make themselves known. By then it is hard to know where you actually picked up the germs that made you sick.
The truth is that over 76 million Americans get a foodborne illness every year. Most feel bad for a day or two, but 300,000 of these are hospitalized with 5,000 deaths. Play it safe and never believe the five-second rule.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 907-474-7201.