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The 5-Second Rule: Fact or Fiction?

Have you been faced with the dietary dilemma of what to do with the cracker that’s been thrown overboard or the grape that rolled away?

The 5-Second Rule Defined

Just to make sure that we are all on the same page, let us first clarify what the 5-Second Rule actually is: It is a comforting notion that affords parents the opportunity to pick up and proceed as planned in serving food that has found its way to the floor. It is an often-cited yet unwritten rule standardly followed, joked about, and/or questioned by many. We can only assume that it came into being as a method of minimizing both tantrums and waste. Clearly, how you make use of (or scoff at) this “rule” will depend on several factors, not the least of which is your overall approach to cleanliness and how badly you or your child wanted the fallen food.

What’s the dilemma?

The question at hand is does this “rule” have any merit, giving you license to retrieve fallen food in good conscience? It may sound funny at first, but it is definitely a question that is commonly posed and rarely adequately answered. We decided it was high time that someone got to the bottom of it.

Time for Trouble

Based on the very little information available on the subject, we have concluded that the 5 seconds you’re allotted is completely imprecise and routinely adjusted to fit one’s needs and allow determined parents sufficient time to complete the retrieval process. We’ve heard everything from 2 seconds for those with rapid response times to upward of 45— presumably for those who don’t live life in the fast lane. And why not? Without knowing just how much time food can spend on the floor untainted and safely edible, applying this rule becomes a matter of pure convenience.


Down for the Count

The best information we could find in the name of real science has to do with a study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois who apparently took the time to investigate just how seriously we all should take the 5-Second Rule. What they found wasn’t exactly reassuring: When it comes to bacteria sticking to food, there’s no protective margin of safe exposure time. And when it comes to bacteria lying in wait, it’s also worth pointing out that another experiment showed salmonella (infamous for its ability to cause significant diarrheal illness) could survive on tile for 28 days!

What does all that mean to you?

Simply that when your child’s coveted gummi bear hits the ground, the potential microbial damage is done no matter how fast your retrieval reflexes may be—regardless of whether you’re talking 2 seconds or 20. From a contamination standpoint, it means no down for the count, no 3 strikes. It’s an immediate out and replacement with a pinch hitter in the interest of hygiene. Now before you vow to scorn every piece of fallen food, let us make one very relevant point: Children are guaranteed to spend quite a lot of time on the floor. And unless you have the unrealistic notion that you’re always going to be able to keep your floor-crawling child’s hands out of his mouth until they’ve been washed, it begs the question of what’s the difference between having one’s hands or one’s food spend time on the floor before finding their way into one’s mouth? The good news is that the types of germs found on a relatively clean kitchen floor are likely to pose less of a challenge to your child’s intestinal tract than, say, those on the ground at the zoo. All things considered, we are therefore willing to admit that when it comes to certain circumstances and surfaces, we still believe in second chances.

Last Updated
Food Fights, 2nd Edition (Copyright © 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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