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Is It True: That It’s Safe To Eat Dropped Food If You Pick It Within 5 Seconds?

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By Rajkanya Mahapatra

I love food. Whenever I have been asked if I were a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, I would somewhat proudly say or rather, declare that I was an omnivore. I love food and refuse to pick a side or a favourite. Most people have life goals, love goals, most of my goals are food goals.

Having said that, I am also a cleanliness freak and the thought of germs on my food scare me. If a morsel that I was preparing to relish falls on the ground, my heart will break into a gazillion pieces but I will throw it away. I have friends who would often give me that ‘look’, the one that says, ‘You’re not one of us anymore.’ They would on these occasions, say, ‘Arre, 5-second rule hai, uthao aur khaao.’

The 5-second rule says that it is okay to eat food that you’ve dropped on a kitchen counter, table or the floor provided you pick it up within five seconds after dropping it.

Now the question that has forever intrigued me but I have never directed my energies at finding the answers to know if the 5-second rule is for real. Do bacteria count five seconds after food falls on the floor and then jump on food to contaminate it? Does that make bacteria more considerate than human beings, more compassionate? Or is the food really safe to eat? I think not.

shambhavi-saxena-illustration
Illustration credit: Shambhavi Saxena

The Rule Isn’t Real Or Is It?

Before we delve deeper into the science, looking at its history should be able to somewhat explain the rationale that was given to explain the 5-second rule. It is difficult to trace the origins and the authenticity of the assumption but the rule was said to have been implemented by Genghis Khan, who said that food could be on the floor for five hours and one could still eat it. (Yeah, right.)

So now, coming to the science of it – It all depends on the kind of food you’re gorging on and the surface that you’re most likely to drop it on. Studies show that if you’re having something that’s moist, like a slice of double cheese burst pizza or has more liquid content, like a slice of watermelon, it is more likely to get infected by bacteria than a piece of double chocolate chip cookie because it’s dry.

But make no mistake, the double chocolate chip cookie will get infected depending on the time it is exposed to bacteria. It might take a few seconds longer, but it’ll happen.

Bacteria like salmonella, listeria or E.coli don’t have feet or a cape, they can’t walk or fly to the food, they need moisture to travel. If the food is dry, but the surface of the floor isn’t, they’ll hop on.

But there are different surfaces on which food can fall on, right? Does that change anything? Yes. A little.

Think of linoleum, carpeted floors or tiled surfaces. Results of an experiment conducted by final year Biology students and led by Anthony Hilton, Professor of Microbiology at the Aston University showed that bacteria was least likely to transfer in that 5-second frame if food fell on carpeted floors than on tiled or laminated surfaces.

It also obviously comes down to the kind of bacteria present on a certain surface. If that carpet is really dirty, you’re going to get bacteria on that piece of food before you have even moved to pick it up. It will always be more advisable if you’re picking food (not that I am, in any way, encouraging it) from a surface you know is cleaned on a regular basis, like the kitchen counter or dining table at your house.

Most studies scream, ‘Don’t eat it!’ Researchers have published highly credible papers, received the Ig Nobel Prize and what not.

Sorry, folks. Looks like using the 5-second rule as an excuse to eat that contaminated piece of dahi kebab is a bad idea and can get your stomach upset, you could also contract severe illnesses.

You need to know four words: “Bacteria can contaminate instantaneously.”

The following video is a one-stop at debunking the 5-second rule.

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Image source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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