Save Money With The New And Improved 5 Second Rule

Everyone knows the 5 second rule. If you drop a piece of food on the floor, and then pick it up before you can count to five, you won’t die of salmonella. Right? Eh, maybe. They took a look at this one on that show Mythbusters, and now some real scientists have given it a once over. The results are delicious.

From The New York Times:

Professor Dawson and colleagues then placed test food slices onto salmonella-painted surfaces for varying lengths of time, and counted how many live bacteria were transferred to the food.

On surfaces that had been contaminated eight hours earlier, slices of bologna and bread left for five seconds took up from 150 to 8,000 bacteria. Left for a full minute, slices collected about 10 times more than that from the tile and carpet, though a lower number from the wood.

What do these numbers tell us about the five-second rule? Quick retrieval does mean fewer bacteria, but it’s no guarantee of safety

Based on the new research the Times writer suggests that the 5 second rule be revised thusly: “If you drop a piece of food, pick it up quickly, take five seconds to recall that just a few bacteria can make you sick, then take a few more to think about where you dropped it and whether or not it’s worth eating.”

As far as we know, that was already the rule. But hey, a slice of lunch meat saved is a slice of lunch meat earned. —MEGHANN MARCO
(Photo: ninjapoodles)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Spider Jerusalem says:

    Yum? On the other hand, how many salmonella-painted surfaces do you have lying around?

  2. roche says:

    @spiderjerusalem: 9 of them

  3. kimsama says:

    @spiderjerusalem: I know, this study sort of makes me regret my decision to paint my kitchen counters with salmonella during my last remodel. Darn house flippers made it look so easy!

  4. quantum-shaman says:

    Everybody knows that dog saliva kills germs so I let them lick it first. Heh heh.

  5. Kornkob says:

    Also consider this: if what you dropped is, for instance, the chicken breast you just pulled out of the pan— tossing it into the pan and heating the surface of the meat back to 160 degrees should kill anything that you might have picked up off the floor.

    Another thing to consider– I’ve been in only a few homes ever where I’d call the kitchen counter ‘sanitary’ by the technical defination. People throw their keys, purses, grocery bags, money and other unsanitary things on those counters. In the food saftey course you have to take to manage a food outlet in Wisconsin they teach you ‘a surface is only as sanitary as the last thing that touched it’. So one could argue that you should apply that 5 second rule to coutners as well.

    Then again– few people store their dishes in really sanitary conditions. After all– when was the last time you washed the inside of your cabinets with a sanitizing solution?

    Sanitation— yeah— we can get all anal about it but if you spend too much time thinking about it, you’ll spend the rest of your waking hours cleaning.

    *enter Monk mode*

  6. markwm says:

    I’ve never allowed the 5 second rule. If something touches the floor, I don’t care how little time it’s had contact, it either goes in the trash or the dog (if he’s faster than I am at retrieval.) It’s just a disgusting thought to me. I also am a firm believer of washing hands immediately before eating, whether you’ve done anything to get them dirty or not. Chalk it up to borderline OCD, I guess.
    I then try to rationalize by pointing out to myself that man has lived for thousands of years, eating off the ground, not washing regularly, etc. Just makes me all the more glad to be living when I am, rather than when it could have been.

  7. Gopher bond says:

    My wife and kids freakout when I eat strawberries because I pop the whole thing in my mouth, leaves and all. I eat entire apples too. Always have. I also generally fix myself a small plate of food and finish up everyone else’s leftovers so there’s no waste.

    Yet I get the least sick out of the entire household and when I do, it’s rarely more than an inconvenience, no doctor visit required.

  8. quantum-shaman says:

    @testsicles: With a moniker like testicles, I’m not surprised. :)

  9. Gopher bond says:

    @quantum-shaman: No, read again, testSicles, you know the frozen Rocky Mountain Oysters on a stick?

  10. I recall an older study which said that the 5 second rule does work as long as the food in question is completely dry. So bologna wouldn’t work but bread might.

  11. SexCpotatoes says:

    In the winter when it’s freezing and I get cold I say: “Brrr! Testiclecicles!

  12. Teira says:

    Honestly, having had salmonella before, it ain’t no thang. Just a couple days of explosive… explosiveness. Compare it to the amount of delicious you’re missing out on, and you’ll see the dirty kid in kindergarten really had it right.

  13. ouvyt says:

    Professor Dawson and colleagues are confirming what Myth Busters… well, busted a while ago. You best bet is to hope that the bacteria won’t be able to survive very long on a slice of processed lunch meat.

  14. axiomatic says:

    So I have amended my rule to 3 seconds and will hope for the best!

  15. NoThru22 says:

    Wait, people really believed in the five second rule? I thought it was just people like my sister, who yells at me for being a germ freak because I wash my hands after touching raw meat, that used it because they don’t care.

  16. ShadeWalker says:

    i think they did this on mythbusters. basically, the more “liquidy” the food is, the more bacteria it retrieved. cereal should be fine if eaten off the floor. yogurt, no.

  17. Kornkob says:

    @NoThru22: Oh hell– in my first line cook job I was taught the rule by the kitchen manager.

    Nonetheless, I’ve seen kids eat the weirdest stuff up to and including straight up dirt without getting any sicker than their playmates did….

    And never mind soldiers— go ahead and try to find enough water and soap to clean up in the field. I’ve seen guys get done digging a foxhole, run a pint or less of water on their hands, dry them on their pants, pull their sppon out of their rucksack and dig into their meals. Never lived with a healthier bunch of guys.

  18. mewyn dyner says:

    I’ve never believed in the 5-second rule. I’m also not all that worried about germs… it’s just dirt that tends to bother me. For me eating something after it comes in contact with a non-food contact surface comes down to how dirty was the surface, how wet was the food, how valuable is the food.

    I won’t eat a piece of meat that I drop on the ground outside, but I’m sure gonna eat that last cookie that I dropped on my clean floor. Then I’m gonna grumble as I have to pull out the dustbuster! :)

  19. Ryan Duff says:

    OK… so they used a salmonella tainted surface… why didn’t they just drop it on a floor or table in a lunch room and test it? An unwashed cutting board after use might be coated, but a clean counter top isn’t. How is this accurate?

    And more importantly… what does this really have to do with saving money?? Come on Consumerist… It’s as if you’ve gotten to the point that you’ve run out of good material but still need to meet a quota of new material each day.

  20. Ran Kailie says:

    Hmmm I never really cared as long as where it fell wasn’t completely gross, like a bathroom or the floor at the club I worked at for awhile. And I never get sick. Go germs!

    I grew up having the “Waste not” crap shoved down my throat. I clear my plate, enforce the 5 second rule, and generally speaking try not to avoid most germs.

  21. ElBrazoOnofre says:

    Mythbusters shouldn’t be getting the credit. Research on this won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health:

  22. Antediluvian says:

    No one here has offered the explanation I learned in college for the 5 second rule: the germs are knocked senseless for a few seconds by the impact of the food product.

    Also, the 5 second rule DOES NOT apply to ice cream.

  23. arelys521 says:

    Isn’t there some study stating that the reason kids get sick more frequently nowadays then back in the day is because of all the anti-bacterial products and germaphobia that’s going down?

    I don’t know, maybe not. Maybe I’m making that up. But either way, the 5 second rule is the sweetest thing, especially when you’ve got the drunk munchies.

  24. kcs says:

    I totally use the five second rule, unless five seconds have passed in which case it becomes the 10 second rule.

  25. Spider Jerusalem says:

    @arelys521: I utterly believe this. We coddle our kids so much, and try to wrap them in these sterile environments, and then we try to sue people when our kids do catch colds. I used to nanny a baby with bronchitis AND asthma, and I’m convinced it only got as bad as it did because his parents wiped everything down with bleach.

    Well, that and the mother insisted I took her child out in the winter for fresh air, even though it was so cold it hurt him to breathe.

  26. etinterrapax says:

    I was raised by a microbiologist, which can go either way. My mom was the anti-germophobe. Mind, she isn’t careless at work, but she’s a huge believer in the strong immune system. Pick it up, wash it off, proceed. In our house, the deal was mostly that if you knew who dropped it and when, and those terms are acceptable to you, it’s your call. With my son, same policy. No shopping-cart covers, no antibacterial wipes, no disposable place mats, no bleaching, no boiling. He is awesomely healthy. We haven’t been to the doctor for a sick visit yet. He’s had a couple of minor colds, but that’s it. I don’t know why people get all hyper about germs and kids. It saves work in the end to stick with soap and water and reasonable cleanliness versus sterility.

  27. stenk says:


    That comment made my day!

    Thank you!

  28. Walkallovaya says:

    Myself I think about what it is that was dropped and how likely it is to pick up germs. If something sticks, it’s gross.

    I just started using Lysol wipes on the mouse, keyboard, phone, and doorknobs regularly. However, I rarely mop the floor or scour the sink. Somehow I feel reasonable.

  29. asherchang says:

    @quantum-shaman: that’s a myth. :)

  30. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    Here’s my theory. If you’re raised in a household where the 5-second rule is in play, you’ll probably build up an immunity. If you grow up in a household where everything is sterilized with Lysol, you’ll get sick at the drop of a hat.

    I mean, come on, humans and animals have immune systems for a reason, so don’t waste yours! It probably helps your immune system even more if you have animals; nothing like having the dog roll in half-eaten squirrel and the come sit in your lap. Mmmm…germy.

    I think it would make an interesting scientific study.

  31. Jesus On A Pogo Stick says:

    @dwayne_dibbly: I totally agree with your theory. My mom never freaked out when I played in the dirt as a kid and I was hardly ever sick. My goddaughter lives in a Lysol sterilized world and she’s sick all the time. I also believe why there are so many children who are deathly allergic to peanuts. I don’t remember anything like this 20+ years ago when I was growing up.

  32. Celeste says:

    I’ve wondered about the increase in peanut allergies myself. I put it down to increased awareness of the condition, so the kiddos are more likely to actually survive to adulthood with their nut allergy, and have a chance to pass it on to their kids.

    I don’t worry too much about sterilizing surfaces for my son. My sisters and I survived without mom boiling the dishes and sheets. So I don’t do any ‘special’ cleaning now that I have a kid. He plays in the dirt. He likes it. He’s healthy. I’ll wipe the obvious spots off his hands and face during the day, and he’ll get a bath before he goes to bed.

  33. Mr. Gunn says:

    testsicles: You got balls, man!

  34. Mr. Gunn says:

    Rectilinear Propagation: But you have to blow on it, to blow the germs off ;-)

  35. poornotignorant says:

    As a longtime dumpster diver, I totally believe in building up immunity by exposing oneself to everything. It works for me, never get sick from food. Just wipe off the cat hair and put it back on the plate.

  36. Grrrrrrr, now with two buns made of bacon. says:

    @JesusOnAPogoStick: Well, as an example, I work with animals on a regular basis, some of which eat raw meat, so I’m always handling raw meat and such. Granted, I wash my hands and keep reasonably clean, but I do come in contact with it. And of course, working with animals, I’m exposed to all sorts of germs and bacteria.

    But, I don’t get sick any more than anyone else I know, and perhaps even less so. I’m quite convinced that if your immune system is up to the task, it will protect you. It’s the same idea with traveling to other countries where sanitation is questionable. The natives usually don’t get sick, but the travelers certainly do (ie “don’t drink the water!).

  37. capnaction99 says:

    I had a grandfather that used to say “everyone in the world eats their own weight in dirt”. Then he would look at me and he’d say, “boy, I’m sure glad I’m not you.”

  38. ninjapoodles says:

    I just want to say that the kid in the picture is mine, and at no point had that bit of whole-wheat roll with honey touched the floor! ;-)