May it Please the Palate

 This food will self-destruct in 5 seconds

Nick Roumel, Nacht Law

Let’s call her Jane. The first time I saw her, she was naked. In a sandbox. She dropped her peanut butter on bread, face down. She picked it up, dusted it off, and ate it. 

It was my first day working in a child care center, as a work-study student in undergrad. Jane was 3 years old.

Many years later, Jane and her mother came to the downtown restaurant where I was tending bar. I told her, “Jane … you survived the five second rule.”

Most people are familiar with this rule (70 percent of women, and 56 percent of men, in a groundbreaking 2003 study by high school student Jillian Clarke), and while it is the subject of humor, it raises a serious issue: should one eat the dropped food, or not?

The answer is not so simple. While dropping any food on the floor for any length of time increases the risk of bacterial infection, this seemingly safe truism collides head-on with another doctrine: that over-restricting children’s exposure to germs makes them more susceptible to allergies, asthma, and other auto-immune diseases in adult life. This “hygiene hypothesis” holds that a child’s immune system is “strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself,” according to Dr. Thom McDade, a researcher at Northwestern University.

Does this mean that one should eat food that has dropped on the floor, willy-nilly? No. In Clarke’s study, when Gummi bears were placed on sterilized tile floors inoculated with E. coli bacteria, they all picked up some germs within five seconds. On the other hand, in a Connecticut College study, bacteria took up to five minutes to contaminate Skittles left on the dining hall floor. 

The use of candy is significant: Clarke’s study found that people were far more likely to pick up fallen treats than, say, broccoli or cauliflower.

A much less fun University of Clemson study determined that salmonella could live a very long time on different kinds of floor surfaces, and would contaminate bread and bologna to some extent no matter how quickly the food was retrieved. These killjoys advocated for a “zero-second” rule. 

One thing that all studies agree on is that the indoor places, where food-borne bacteria tend to lurk, are more risky than the outdoors. Dr. Harley Rotbart of the University of Colorado concludes that outdoor locations are cleaner than the kitchen floor in terms of the types of germs that cause illnesses.

So back to Jane. She enjoyed her snack, and built up her immune system at the same time. Maybe she was on to something? Anyway, whatever I was serving at the bar the day she came in with her mother was sure to kill any residual germs she may have still had lingering. 

Which leads me to one of the very few five-second recipes I found on the Internet — featuring Cachaça, a Brazilian spirit made with sugarcane:


The Five-Second Caipirinha 

— In Five Simple Steps


1. Fill a highball glass with ice.

2. Pour 2 oz. Leblon Cachaça over the ice.

3. Squeeze 2 wedges of lime into the glass.

4. Fill rest of glass to the top with lemon-lime soda.

5. Stir and garnish with a lime.


What this means is that you can drop your food, make a delicious cocktail, and pick up the dropped food to eat — all without violating the five-second rule.

Now I’ll drink to that!


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He has a blog at which badly needs updating!


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