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Food safety: why the five-second rule is a myth

A food safety expert lifts the lid on the ‚five second rule‘ and admits that while it’s gross to consume food we’ve dropped on the ground, he’s guilty of doing it himself.

Look, we’ve all done it – shrugged after dropping a piece of food on the ground and tossed it in our mouths anyway. You might have even shoved something back in your kid’s mouth after they lost their grip on snacks at the park.

We don’t want you to feel bad about it, but we do want you to stop committing this crime against cuisine in the future.

According to Trevor Craig, a food safety expert from the US, snack contamination is instant – so the five-second rule doesn’t hold up as well as we might like.

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“Bacteria can transfer immediately; there’s no biological rule to hold back bacteria,” Craig told Well+Good.

“Bacteria do sometimes have capabilities to move by themselves – though it’s not like they are moving very quickly – but they are able to transfer from surface to surface almost instantly, which is critical to how bacteria and contamination occurs.” 

Gross. So it turns out picking that rogue cracker off the kitchen floor last week might’ve been a bad idea. Just think of all the shoes and pets traipsing through the house – where have they been and what have they stepped on? And that’s just indoors – what if you’ve followed the ‚five-second rule‘ in a public place? 

There is a plus side

Ultimately, „Bacteria are transferred everywhere, including human bodies,“ Craig explains. „The good thing about bacteria is that most of them are not dangerous, and living bodies typically have immune systems to help fight off most bacteria; in fact, some bacteria can fight off other bacteria, which is the concept of probiotics and good gut health.“ 

Good news for us, but food doesn’t quite have the same level of defence. “Food doesn’t have an immune system,“ says Craig. „So once exposed to bacteria, a food product can support its growth and can then pass it onto the next thing that touches or ingests it.”

Funnily enough, Craig admits that he too commits the crime from time to time. “I don’t always follow my own advice and have eaten things I’ve dropped at times. I’ve popped a few almonds in my mouth after dropping them,” he confesses. “I’ve dropped slices of onion on the floor, washed them off, and then used them to cook.”

But it’s definitely a habit to avoid you can – why would you increase your exposure to germs if you can avoid it?

Can dropped food be salvaged?

Craig told the publication that washing something can remove some of the bacteria and lower the risk, but not everything can be washed, or washed to the extent it would need to be.

“The longer the bacteria are on the food, the more it has a chance to grow in numbers and spread.”

The best tip Craig can give is to not eat anything you drop on the ground, however, if you can’t stand the thought of even the tiniest food wastage and you’re dying of starvation, make sure your home is spick and span, at all times.

“Think of the surface and what that looks like and how it’s treated. You and a restaurant should be pretty good about regularly cleaning tables, and the risk should be low.”

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