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'5-Second Rule' Rules, Sometimes

Experts explore whether it's safe to eat food that's made quick contact with the floor.

'5-Second' Naysayers

Two experts tell WebMD you should never eat food that's fallen on the floor.

"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 that counter.

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."

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