Fiona McCade: 5 sec rule not the 30 day dalliance

Roguefort cheese is prized for being left for years in dank cellars. Picture: ASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images.
Roguefort cheese is prized for being left for years in dank cellars. Picture: ASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images.
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SCIENCE might tell us the germs will get to our food before we will if we drop it on the floor, but when at home, who really cares,
asks Fiona McCade.

THE rule may vary from household to household, but in my experience, it was always the Ten Second Rule: if food fell on the floor, you had ten seconds to pick it up, dust it off and eat it. Longer than that and it went in the bin, or the dog.

I even had the Ten Second Rule verified by a professional. I was having a cuppa with a nurse one day, and I dropped a biscuit on the floor. Without thinking, I picked it up, blew on it, and was about to lift it to my lips when I suddenly realised that I probably wasn’t making a great impression in front of an authority on cleanliness. As I paused, Hobnob in limbo, she smiled and said: “No worries, you took less than ten seconds.”

So there; official approval for the Ten Second Rule.

This week, microbiologists from Birmingham’s Aston University have published data relating to a rule I’ve never heard of before: the Five Second Rule.

The scientists dropped four kinds of food (toast, a boiled sweet, a biscuit and some pasta) on to three types of flooring (carpet, laminate and tile). Then they measured how long the food took to gather bacteria. The study found that up to five seconds on the floor was OK for most foods, but after that time period, risk of bacterial infestation skyrocketed.

It seems I’ve been playing with fire. There I was, mucking about for those vital, extra five seconds, thinking I had all the time in the world, while my food was in fact becoming a teeming metropolis of germy infectiousness. It’s incredible that I am still alive, or that any of my family is for that matter.

I’m wondering if germs have got quicker since I was a lass. Perhaps in the 1970s, they were more sluggish, thanks to all the additives in the food. Back then, even if they could digest some of the preservative-laden comestibles we used to eat, I’m guessing the amount of E-numbers would give even E coli a run for its money.

Nowadays, with so much more fresh, organic food available, it’s increasingly difficult to separate what we’re supposed to be eating from what just crawled on to it.

What’s the difference between stuff like bifidus and actual germs? When it comes to blue cheese and live yoghurt, I’m unsure about where the “good” bacteria end and whatever microbes that may be living in my house begin. If it’s in a pot and advertised on TV, it’s OK, but if it’s on my kitchen floor, it’s not? I don’t understand.

Roquefort cheese is left in damp caves for half a year, where it gets mouldy, then people pay good money to eat it. Why doesn’t the same rule apply if a bit of cheddar is suddenly found in a garage after a couple of months?

I realise that many elderly people, or those already in delicate health, are at genuine risk from eating contaminated food, but I don’t believe that the average, healthy person should be too concerned about whether to apply the Five or the Ten Second Rule.

Are some people overly fussy about germs? As someone who has eaten a dusty Rolo of unknown origin (only by accident – I’m not a total slob), and is still here to tell the tale, I think they are.

It’s possible to be too precious about hygiene and, despite the findings of the microbiologists at Aston, I have a sneaking suspicion that people who live in dirty houses are stronger and less susceptible to illness than those who live in pristine, Dettol-scrubbed bubbles.

Of course, I’m saying this because my home is a filth-ridden tip, but we’re all ox-wrestling fit and my child never gets the sort of bugs that periodically prostrate so many of his classmates.

All over the world, human beings – like my family – survive perfectly well in living conditions that many people might consider insanitary. However, I don’t believe we do ourselves any favours by sterilising our environments so much that we fall like ninepins the moment we come into contact with anything stronger than Yakult.

Sometimes, what the eye doesn’t see, the stomach won’t notice either. I was cooking dinner for some friends recently, and used my finger (pre-washed, honestly) to move some cream off a spoon and into a pan. It was nothing that Nigella wouldn’t have done, but one woman squealed out loud. It’s a good job she didn’t see me earlier that day, desperately scooping rice out of the kitchen sink, after the handle of the sieve broke while I was draining it, and the contents all went south. Being a caring hostess, I decanted the rescued rice into a bowl, put it in the microwave and gave it a good zap. No guests were harmed during the making of that curry.

By all means, try to follow the Five Second Rule, but don’t beat yourself up if it turns into the Ten Second Rule. Round our way, we’ve stretched occasionally to the 30 Second Rule, and, for certain under-fives, the 30 Day Rule has been known to apply with no ill-effects whatsoever.

While it’s true that I was slightly embarrassed (but only slightly) to be seen eating stuff off the floor, I believe that context is everything when deciding which rule to employ.

For example, if I dropped a piece of dry toast on to a carpet in my own home, my only imperative would be to get to it before the cat did. If the toast was buttered, I’d use the Five Second Rule, but sadly, chances are it would go in the bin – nobody likes fluffy toast.

However, if I should find myself in the position of dropping a piece of toast in the gents toilets at any railway station, let me reassure you that it wouldn’t matter if it were buttered or not. I would not be picking it up. And that’s the kind of classy gal I am.