The 5-second rule: Fact or fiction?

To pick it up or not to pick it up...?
To pick it up or not to pick it up...?
Mo Perry

There you are, happily munching away and you drop a Triscuit on the floor. Do you pick it up and pop it in your mouth or throw it away? What if it weren't a mere Triscuit but a fancy chocolate truffle? What if it hadn't been lying there for a brief moment, but for a full three minutes? Do you abide by the famous five-second rule, which states that as long as a piece of food has been in contact with the ground for less than five seconds, it's still OK to eat? Or do you suspect that this "rule" was made up by hungry, drunk college students with shockingly low standards for personal health and hygiene? Read on to find out the truth.

The New York Times published a Q & A regarding the five-second rule in today's Science section, and the answer was clear: "The five-second rule probably should become the zero-second rule," said Dr. Roy M. Gulick, a specialist in infectious diseases at Weill Cornell Medical College. "Eating dropped food poses a risk for ingestion of bacteria and subsequent gastrointestinal disease, and the time the food sits on the floor does not change the risk."

In 2006, researchers at Clemson University did a scientific study involving bologna dropped on a variety of salmonella-laced surfaces for periods of time ranging from five to 60 seconds. They found that 99 percent of the bacteria transferred to the food immediately from wood and tile surfaces, while carpet transferred a smaller amount. Time played no factor for any of the surfaces tested.

So have you been ingesting salmonella every time you picked up an errant piece of food here and there? Probably not. A 2002 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found no significant levels of contamination on public flooring. So unless you're eating potato chips off the floor of a slaughterhouse, you're probably all right.

That said, it might be time to scrap the five-second rule in favor of something more scientifically accurate, like the "carpeted surface in an area highly unlikely to contain salmonella" rule. Works for us.

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