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I Eat Food Off the Floor All the Time, and I'm Proud of It

The "five-second rule" decrees that if a piece of food is dropped onto the floor, it can be picked up and eaten within five seconds before any germs transfer onto it. Recently, it was actually proved to have some scientific foundation.
March 21, 2014, 2:00pm

Posh dinner at my house. We don't usually bother with the plates. Photo by Chris Bethell

The "five-second rule"—that unwritten mantra usually squealed by a wide-eyed child as he picks a chip off the pavement and stuffs it into his mouth—decrees that if a piece of food is dropped onto the floor it can be picked up and eaten within five seconds before any germs transfer onto it. Recently, it was actually proved to have some scientific foundation. According to a study from Aston University in Birmingham, the kids have been right all along. Of course they have.

This study, led by microbiology professor Anthony Hilton and a team of final-year biology students, looked at the transfer of E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus (the one that causes Staph infection) from a whole spectrum of floor types—laminate, tiles, carpet—and a variety of foods—ham, dried fruit, toast, biscuits, pasta, sticky puddings. They tested each food, on each surface, with contact ranging between three and 30 seconds. They found that not only is time a significant factor in the transfer of bacteria from a floor surface to a piece of food, but it also depends on the type of floor it lands on. Turns out that carpet is least likely to transfer bugs, but if anything sits on a hardwood floor for more five seconds, then it's almost guaranteed that things will climb on. And if you drop wet food and pick it up? The researchers found out that you need to have a serious look at your life, mate.

They also found that, out of 87 percent of people they surveyed who said they'd eat food from the floor, 55 percent were women. I am, proudly, one of those women. I'm not about to put two fingers up to science—I already did that once, turning my back on a medicine degree—but I've been eating food off the floor and other questionable surfaces my entire life. And to my knowledge, I've never been ill from it.

Eating off the floor is a prerequisite of being a kid, but as a teenager I applied the same laissez-faire attitude to the surfaces I plucked my food from when I waitressed at the only high-end restaurant in my hometown (Bishop's Stortford, since you're asking). Here, my friends and I would merrily feed ourselves by swiping half-eaten terrines, smoked haddock goujons, fries, wobbly, ass-like panna cottas, and slicks of partially congealed crème anglaise from people's plates into our mouths by the dishwasher. It was absolute bliss. If a diner dropped his buttered bread onto the floor, do you think we'd bin it and not carefully slip it into our apron to eat out back before bringing him more? Please.

Without question, those years were some of the finest of my life, and I've carried the same food-waste mantra through: I just don't—can't—do it. We waste too much food. If I'm cooking and something falls out of the pot, it's going back in. If I'm walking around Westfield eating sushi off a tray and drop a bit beside the bins? It's still going in my mouth. I can't look at something I've paid for lying there pathetically. It's probably a bit pathological, but who cares? Although I'm not about to go around pecking like a pigeon at bread crumbs left under a park bench, I live by a no-second rule.

The reasoning behind this rule is very simple: I believe in the human body. Someone has to. These big, fleshy cases we're born in must be capable of fending off the doses of potentially harmful bacteria that Hilton and his team speak of, or else, surely, loads of us would just be ill all the time? Putting me and my equally rank friends aside for a second—I have one who will lie one half of a sandwich naked on the ground, any ground, while she eats the other half—surely, when you consider just how much bacteria there is on every single surface we touch (PIN pads, keyboards, phones, mugs, handrails, elevator buttons, water machines, printers, hand dryers), which then transfer onto our food without us knowing, every single day, should eating something that's been on the floor for more than five seconds really have us shitting ourselves about whether we might, in fact, shit ourselves later on? I don't think so.

You're not "safe" eating from a plate you've taken from the cupboard in your office kitchen because, for all you know, someone might have touched that stack of plates before you with specks of dog shit on his hands because he'd taken his shoes off for some reason. See? This kind of thinking breeds paranoia. Not bacteria. Most people are exposed to all kinds of horrible stuff, and our bodies just deal with it. So I'll ignore the science, thanks, and continue eating my food from the floor like an animal. Even if it's wet.

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