How fast contamination occurs depends on moisture level, surface type and contact time.

Five-second rule for picking up dropped food is bunkum now theres science to prove itWikimedia Commons/Tamorlan
Features Popular Science Sunday, September 11, 2016 - 18:57

Many people have done it, or seen it done, at some point or the other – calling the five-second rule to pick up some delicious morsel off the floor before the “germs” get on it. But a new study warns that food, once dropped on the floor, is not safe to eat, no matter how quickly you pick it up.

Moisture, type of surface and contact-time all contribute to cross-contamination. In some instances, the transfer begins in less than one second, the study said.

"The popular notion of the 'five-second rule' is that food dropped on the floor, but picked up quickly, is safe to eat because bacteria need time to transfer," said Donald Schaffner, Professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey, in the US.

"We decided to look into this because the practice is so widespread. The topic might appear 'light' but we wanted our results backed by solid science," Schaffner noted.

The researchers tested four surfaces – stainless steel, ceramic tile, wood and carpet – and four different foods – watermelon, bread, bread and butter, and gummy candy.

They also looked at four different contact times – less than one second, five seconds, 30 and 300 seconds.

They used two media – tryptic soy broth or peptone buffer – to grow Enterobacter aerogenes, a nonpathogenic "cousin" of Salmonella naturally occurring in the human digestive system.

Transfer scenarios were evaluated for each surface type, food type, contact time and bacterial prep; surfaces were inoculated with bacteria and allowed to completely dry before food samples were dropped and left to remain for specified periods.

In all, 128 scenarios were replicated 20 times each, yielding 2,560 measurements. Post-transfer surface and food samples were analysed for contamination.

Not surprisingly, watermelon had the most contamination, gummy candy the least. The findings were published online in the American Society for Microbiology's journal, “Applied and Environmental Microbiology”.

"Transfer of bacteria from surfaces to food appears to be affected most by moisture," Schaffner said.

"Bacteria don't have legs, they move with the moisture, and the wetter the food, the higher the risk of transfer," Schaffner explained.

"Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously," Schaffner warned.

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