When I meet someone who asks what I do the conversation usually turns to restaurant grades, foods I avoid and the famed 5-second rule. Most have an opinion that confirms their actions (where benefit may outweigh risk depending on what was dropped).
Paul Dawson and colleagues looked at the five-second rule in 2007 showing greater transfer with longer drying times with an 8 hour drying period of the floor contaminant. In 2014 a group of students at Aston University in Birmingham, U.K conducted some science-fair type experiments and reported the non peer-reviewed research on their university website. It got picked up all over the place and for 15 minutes the question was answered; everyone could go back to dropping their food on the floor and setting the critical limit at <5 seconds.
Rutgers graduate student Robyn Miranda and friend of barfblog (and podcast co-host extraordinaire) Don Schaffner tackled the 5-second rule in a more systematic way and put out a press release today after the paper went through peer-review and was published (cuz that’s how Schaffner rolls). The quick answer to whether the oft-cited risk prevention step is a myth? ‘The five-second rule is a significant oversimplification of what actually happens when bacteria transfer from a surface to food. Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously.’
Turns out bacteria may transfer to candy that has fallen on the floor no matter how fast you pick it up.
Rutgers researchers have disproven the widely accepted notion that it’s OK to scoop up food and eat it within a “safe” five-second window. Donald Schaffner, professor and extension specialist in food science, found that moisture, type of surface and contact time all contribute to cross-contamination. In some instances, the transfer begins in less than one second. Their findings appear online in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal, Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
“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,” Schaffner said, adding that while the pop culture “rule” has been featured by at least two TV programs, research in peer-reviewed journals is limited.
“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,” said Schaffner, who conducted research with Robyn Miranda, a graduate student in his laboratory at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
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, 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. All totaled 128 scenarios were replicated 20 times each, yielding 2,560 measurements. Post-transfer surface and food samples were analyzed for contamination.
Not surprisingly, watermelon had the most contamination, gummy candy the least. “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. Also, longer food contact times usually result in the transfer of more bacteria from each surface to food.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, carpet has very low transfer rates compared with those of tile and stainless steel, whereas transfer from wood is more variable. “The topography of the surface and food seem to play an important role in bacterial transfer,” Schaffner said.
So while the researchers demonstrate that the five-second rule is “real” in the sense that longer contact time results in more bacterial transfer, it also shows other factors, including the nature of the food and the surface it falls on, are of equal or greater importance.
“The five-second rule is a significant oversimplification of what actually happens when bacteria transfer from a surface to food,” Schaffner said. “Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously.”
The paper can be downloaded here, abstract below.
WORLD: Longer contact times increase cross-contamination of Enterobacter aerogenes from surfaces to food
Appl. Environ. Microbiol. DOI: 10.1128/AEM.01838-16
Robyn C. Miranda and Donald W. Schaffner
Bacterial cross-contamination from surfaces to food can contribute to foodborne disease. The cross-contamination rate of Enterobacter aerogenes was evaluated on household surfaces using scenarios that differed by surface type, food type, contact time (<1, 5, 30 and 300 s), and inoculum matrix (tryptic soy broth or peptone buffer). The surfaces used were stainless steel, tile, wood and carpet. The food types were watermelon, bread, bread with butter and gummy candy. Surfaces (25 cm2) were spot inoculated with 1 ml of inoculum and allowed to dry for 5 h, yielding an approximate concentration of 107 CFU/surface. Foods (with 16 cm2 contact area) were dropped on the surfaces from a height of 12.5 cm and left to rest as appropriate. Post transfer surfaces and foods were placed in sterile filter bags and homogenized or massaged, diluted and plated on tryptic soy agar. The transfer rate was quantified as the log % transfer from the surface to the food. Contact time, food and surface type all had a highly significant effect (P<0.000001) on log % transfer of bacteria. The inoculum matrix (TSB or peptone buffer) also had a significant effect on transfer (P = 0.013), and most interaction terms were significant. More bacteria transferred to watermelon (~0.2-97%) relative to other foods, while fewer bacteria transferred to gummy candy (~0.1-62%). Transfer of bacteria to bread (~0.02-94%) and bread with butter (~0.02-82%) were similar, and transfer rates under a given set of condition were more variable compared with watermelon and gummy candy.