The power and glory of the five-second rule

Never mind the data on microbial contamination -- it's the existential philosophy of survival that parents truly cherish.

Published May 10, 2007 7:46PM (EDT)

Who could resist a painstaking scientific study investigating whether the safety claims of the "five-second rule" are grounded in measurable reality? Not Harold McGee, author of the fabulous "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," in Wednesday's New York Times, and certainly not I, though it might take a moment to demonstrate how the topic connects to the normal preoccupations of this space.

Explaining the five-second rule is simple. A child drops some food on the floor, and the parent, exclaiming "five second rule!" in a bright and chirpy voice, whisks it back up, hands it back to the child, and blithely encourages continued eating. The "theory," such as it is, is that brevity of contact minimizes the chances of nasty microbial contamination.

A team of researchers performed a thorough microbiological study, "Residence time and food contact time effects on transfer of Salmonella Typhimurium from tile, wood and carpet: testing the five-second rule," and generated some disconcerting data. Salmonella, it seems, likes to stick around. As McGee summarized:

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.

McGee is restrained in his analysis, offering up as his conclusion the sage advice that "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."

Fine. Perhaps I'm overestimating the intelligence of the average parent, but I'd vouchsafe that most of us who have ever deployed the five-second rule already follow that advice. As in, we are experts at instantly calculating the differing toxic effects of dropping a french fry on a beach boardwalk that is contaminated by god knows what, or on a freshly mopped kitchen floor, before we make a snap decision as to whether to invoke the five-second rule. Millions of years of evolution have bequeathed all parents with an innate ability to do this without having to think. Otherwise, the human race would have gone extinct long, long ago.

But there's a far deeper significance to the five-second rule that I think McGee is overlooking. The five-second rule is much more than a safety buffer; it is a philosophy of ad hoc survival, a vital existential enabler, a strategy for coping with a world in which, if one took the time to carefully consider all the potential risks and hazards that cluster around every moment of existence, one would be utterly paralyzed and incapable of action. The five-second rule is what keeps parents from turning into some kind of zombie cross between Howard Hughes and the Cowardly Lion. Without the metaphorical power invested in the universal application of the five-second rule, we would not be able to function.

When I look my son or daughter in the eye, shortly after that piece of toast has gone for a little spin, and I declare "five-second rule!" -- I am most definitely not saying that there is a 36.4 percent smaller chance of getting food poisoning per each 110 nanoseconds of floor-bread physical interface. Of course not! What I am actually saying is: "Oh child of mine, the world is full of many dangers and horrors, but if you try to protect yourself against all of them, all of the time, your journey through life will be one filled with shudders at every shadow. Sometimes, you just gotta live." (And yes, I am also saying, "goddammit! -- I do NOT have the time to make you another piece of toast while assembling your school lunch and getting ready for work." But parenting has always been a mix of sage life advice and inexcusable laziness.)

Do some of us abuse the five-second rule? Assuredly. Do I recommend institutionalization of such carefree risk analysis to be applied to the evaluation of the safety risks of genetically modified organisms and the allowable parts-per-billion of specific chemicals in the tap water I drink or the air I breathe? Absolutely not. As any parent knows, if a transnational corporation is telling you that there are no health risks from contact with the kitchen floor, that's when you immediately summon the HazMat team for a thorough disinfection before allowing the ingestion of any food substance that even thought of falling off the table.

Luckily, the parent-child relationship and the five-second rule are not subject to the warping powers of unregulated capitalism. Quite the opposite -- the invoking of the five-second rule is actually the parent's chief tool for altering the structure of reality through pure force of will. No laboratory study will ever be able to duplicate this totemic power, this awesome ability to create, in the person to whom these words are addressed, a sense of proportion and sanity and rough-and-ready competence to deal with the uncertainties and disappointments of life.

Provided, of course, they've washed their hands before eating. If they haven't taken that necessary precaution, nothing in this universe can save them from certain doom.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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