Is the five second rule giving way to a zero second rule?

A cartoon illustration of the old-wives' tale regarding food and bacteria that we know as the "Five Second Rule."

If you're going to pick up that fallen food, consider whether these guys are hitching a ride. (Photo Credit: Greg Williams/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA)

We all know that it’s important not to waste food. According to Wikipedia, wasted food (raw or cooked) costs the U.K. £10.2 billion annually ($ 15.5 billion). In the United States, 15 percent of all edible food ends up untouched or unopened, which amounts to $43 billion in waste. You’d think the five second rule – where dropped food is assumed to be fit to eat so long as it’s scooped off the floor in less than five seconds – would be encouraged by economists. Yet the Chicago Tribune reports that food scientists such as Paul Dawson of Clemson University assert that the five second rule should be discarded along with the pallets of food many restaurants and grocery stores see fit to throw away rather than donate to homeless shelters.

The five second rule should be a zero second rule, says Dawson

Considering that salmonella and other bacteria can live for up to four weeks on dry surfaces and instantly contaminate food on contact, perhaps Dawson is on to something. Yet Connecticut College student researchers claim that their experiments with apple slices and Skittles candies on the floor of a collegiate dining hall prove the five second rule’s merit. Apparently the apple slices only showed infection after a one minute, while the Skittles took nearly five minutes to become infected. Another student collegiate study performed at the University of Maine showed that the five second rule could reduce food waste and improve child immune systems.

Not time, but location

The time frame amounts to pseudo-science, says Dawson and his supporters. A kitchen or bathroom floor will typically be home to many more harmful germs that cause illness, according to numerous scientific studies. However, if a bagel drops on the sidewalk, it’s OK to pick it up and brush it off. Believe it or not, that sidewalk is probably much less germ-ridden than the floors of your home.

Some five second rule fast facts

The Tribune points to research that shows that the risk people take with recovering dropped food is typically related to how badly they want what they dropped. Thus, sugary snacks tend to be recovered more than vegetables. It is also interesting to note that research seems to disprove gender stereotypes: women are more likely to eat dropped food than men.


Chicago Tribune


The five-second rule in action. Would you pass the test?

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