'5-Second Rule' Rules, Sometimes
Experts explore whether it's safe to eat food that's made quick contact with the floor.
Two experts tell WebMD you should never eat food that's fallen on the
"At least, wash it first," says Ruth Frechman, MA, RD, spokeswoman
for the American Dietetic Association. "Bacteria are all over the place,
and 10 types, including E. coli, cause foodborne illnesses, such as fever, diarrhea, and flu-like symptoms."
She tells WebMD that foodborne illnesses can have varying onset, ranging
from 24 hours to a week. So, if the food you picked up and ate last Wednesday
was responsible for sidelining you over the weekend, you probably wouldn't even
associate the two events.
"Err on the side of safety," says Frechman, who has a consulting
business in Burbank, Calif., called On the Weigh.
Restaurants and the 5-Second Rule
Robert Romaine first heard the five-second rule when he became a San Diego
County health inspector, a job he held for more than 25 years. "I don't
think anyone in the restaurant business really believes the five-second rule,
but restaurant operators are concerned about the bottom line. So they might be
reluctant to throw away food, even though they know the risk."
Romaine says violators are unlikely to get caught. "When a health
inspector is in a restaurant, everyone is on their best behavior."
"If the food is dry, and there's no stickiness to it, it's less likely
that bacteria will stick to it but in most cases we're talking about a $20
steak or a piece of fish that's not dry," Romaine tells WebMD. "If it's
dry food, then we're just talking about filth, like hair or whatever is on the
soles of shoes."
He is now a food safety consultant and culinary instructor at The Art
Institute of California in San Diego. "We teach students that any surface,
especially floors, should not be considered clean, and any food that comes in
contact with it is trash."
That includes counters that have been washed and sanitized. If the
precaution sounds extreme, consider the potential for damp floors and what
might be on the shoes of a worker who walked her dog or used the restroom
before coming to work. Then someone lifts a carton of produce from the floor
and sets it on the counter. Maybe you don't want to eat food that has fallen on
A Smorgasbord of Opinions
Until further studies are done, there's no consensus on how safe it is to
eat dropped food. Foodborne illnesses are not serious for most of the 76
million Americans 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.
"I still pick up food off the floor," says Agle, "but I'm not in
the susceptible population. I think the take-home message is that floors are
generally clean but if there are microorganisms present, they will transfer in
less than five seconds."