Just about everywhere food is being prepared, whether at home or in a restaurant, if it hits the floor you’ll probably hear someone yell, "Five-second rule!"
In case anybody’s not familiar with the five-second rule, it’s a way to salvage expensive food...if it falls on the floor and you snatch it up in less than five seconds, it's safe to eat.
Is it really? Should you throw it away, wash it off or just ignore the fact that it was on the floor? By the way, people are more inclined to eat dropped cookies and candy more often than they are dropped vegetables.
Of course someone really has done a scientific study of the five-second rule and before we go on, I am betting that their recommendations don’t agree with the rest of us.
One project I read was by a high school intern in the food science and nutrition department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The floors around the lab, hall, dormitory and cafeteria were tested to see how many organisms could be identified. They were surprised to actually find very few microorganisms. It was believed the reason the floors were so clean was because they were dry and most pathogens like salmonella, listeria, or E. coli can't survive without moisture.
Cookies and gummi bears were placed on both rough and smooth sterile tiles covered with measured amounts of E. coli and the germs transferred in less than five seconds. Carpet and damp floors were not included in the study.
Naturally the experts say you should never eat food that's fallen on the floor. Surprised? A spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association said if you do eat it you should at least wash it first. Hard to do with a cookie. The reason: Bacteria are all over the place, and 10 types, including E. coli, cause food borne illnesses, such as fever, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms.
The owner of a California consulting firm said nobody in the restaurant business really believes the five-second rule, but restaurant operators are concerned about the bottom line, so they probably aren’t going to throw out anything that’s hit the floor. Besides, nobody will ever know.
The bottom line is that if the food is dry and not sticky, like a cookie, it's less likely that bacteria will stick to it and it won’t pick up anything but hair or something. But in most cases the food involves a steak or piece of fish which aren’t cheap plus they are moist which means they will pick up germs.
When considering restaurants, experts warn that even food that touches counters that have been washed and sanitized can be dangerous. One “expert” gave a scenario where food was dropped on a damp floor and then placed on the counter. Maybe an employee walked their dog before they came to work and there was dog poop on their shoe and then a carton of produce from the floor was set it on the counter. You wouldn’t want to eat food that came in contact with the counter either.
The reality is that there's no consensus on how safe it is to eat dropped food. Food borne illnesses are not serious for the millions of people who contract them every year. But, according to the web site of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases, it's estimated that of those cases, 300,000 people are hospitalized, and 5,000 die. Most deaths occur among susceptible populations that include small children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.
Bottom line: floors are generally clean but if there are microorganisms present, they will transfer in less than five seconds.