“Don’t eat that!” I said to Edna, as though I was speaking to one of my granddaughters who had just dropped a piece of candy on the floor of a public restroom.
“Why not?” she asked, as she quickly retrieved a brownie from my kitchen floor.
“Because you dropped it on the floor, for heaven’s sake. There are millions of germs down there.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of the five second rule?” she laughed.
“Sure,” I said, “I know the old wives’ tale that if you retrieve something from the floor, or ground, quickly enough—five seconds or less—it’s not likely to be contaminated.”
“That’s right and did you see how adept I was at the recovery? Pretty good, I think, considering my arthritic back.”
“According to researchers, it makes no difference how quickly you pick it up,” I said.
“Are you talking about that high school kid, who did her science project by dropping Gummy Bears onto a tile floor and concluded that E. coli bacteria attached to the candy in less than five seconds?”
“Well, that’s not all. For your information, MythBusters did a program a few years back that proved bacteria and viruses grab on contact. You may think the three-second rule gives you a margin of safety, but that’s just hogwash.”
Edna’s not the only one to invoke a nonsense rule that allows for eating something that should’ve been thrown away. The “ground rule” is used worldwide in some form or another. The Russians say: “Promptly picked up is not considered fallen.” In Ireland they say of food recovered from the floor: “Whatever it has gained, it has lost nothing.”
In some countries, there’s the quaint custom of blowing on the dropped item and sanctifying it by saying “God’s food” before popping it in your mouth.
Seinfeld’s George Costanza rationalized eating an éclair from the kitchen trash by saying it was on top of the heap—above the rim, resting on a magazine for only a few seconds with only one bite missing.
Regardless of the scientific evidence to the contrary, Edna makes an argument for the five-second rule.
“I don’t believe bacteria with their microscopic little legs can move fast enough to beat me to a dropped cookie,” she says, “and, besides, if what scientists claim is true, no kid would ever make it to the age of two.”
She has a point. A nine-month old is a human mop, his hands and feet scouring every surface they contact, often vying with the family pet for a toy, a scrap of food, or a lint-covered pacifier. Edna says the average toddler has a reptilian gut capable of ingesting an array of objects, usually without harm.
It’s astounding what the human body can endure. Still, I think Edna pushes her luck when it comes to bacteria. I’ve seen her eat yogurt three weeks after the expiration date. Why stamp those illegible dates on a container if they’re not meant to be taken seriously? But Edna believes a few germs here and there actually make us healthier. She says if we shielded ourselves from all microorganisms, we’d be a lot sicker. It’s up to us to give our immune system something to do.
Still, I refuse to accept Edna’s nonchalant attitude toward dropped food and have come up with my own test of whether you should automatically ingest a retrieved morsel. As you bend over in hopes of salvaging a favorite food, forget the Five Second Rule. Instead, follow my Seven Questions Rule:
My Seven Questions Rule
1. Can you cut off the part that hit the floor?
2. Where did it fall? (Keep the drop in perspective: office desks and cell phones have 400 times more germs than a toilet seat, so you might want to reconsider anything dropped upon your work space or atop your iPhone.)
3. Was the dropped food wet or dry? (Bacteria adhere more quickly to wet items.)
4. Does the grounded food have visible lint, grass, or dirt attached?
5. Do you have to fight the dog for it?
6. Did anyone see you drop it?
7. And, the biggest question of all: How hungry are you?