It’s time to retire the five-second rule

Bacteria jump quickly onto dropped food

peanut butter and jelly sandwich face down on the floor

DON’T EAT THAT  Wet foods that fall on the floor pick up bacteria quickly, a new study suggests.

Mark Deibert/iStockphoto

For some dropped foods, the five-second rule is about five seconds too long. Wet foods, such as watermelon, slurp up floor germs almost immediately, scientists report online September 2 in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Robyn Miranda and Donald Schaffner of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., tested gummy candy, watermelon and buttered and unbuttered bread by dropping morsels onto various surfaces coated with Enterobacter aerogenes bacteria. Food was left on each surface — stainless steel, ceramic tile, wood and carpet — for time periods ranging from less than a second to five minutes. Afterward, the researchers measured the amount of E. aerogenes on the food, harmless bacteria that share attachment characteristics with stomach-turning Salmonella

As expected, longer contact times generally meant more bacteria on the food. But the transfer depended on other factors, too. Carpet, for instance, was less likely to transfer germs than the other surfaces. Gummy candies, particularly those on carpet, stayed relatively clean. But juicy watermelon quickly picked up lots of bacteria from all surfaces in less than a second. These complexities, the authors write, mean that the five-second rule is probably a rule worth dropping.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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