The 3 Second Rule Fallacy

Sunday July 17, 2016

The 3 Second Rule

I was reading some Chef blogs the other day and I was astonished when someone actually posted a question about the validity of the 3 second rule (also called the 5 second rule).  For those of you who don’t know what the 3 second rule is, it is a phrase which refers to food which has been dropped on the floor.  “If you pick it up within 3 seconds its safe!”  Another phrase referring to this is, “It landed on the napkin.”

I might understand this question being discussed by novices, but by professional chefs?!  Most of the chefs were staunchly against it, but a few made feeble attempts of defending the practice.  I see no defense for it.  If a filet mignon falls on the floor, it’s done, over, garbage.  Start a new steak.  If any of my staff ever questions me on this, then I have them follow me into the men’s bathroom.  I’ll step in the puddle under the urinal, go back to the kitchen Line and step on the floor.  I’ll drop a piece of meat on that spot and ask them to eat it.  I’m never asked about it a second time.

If you think that you are saving money by “cooking it to kill the germs” and serving it, then think about the damage to your reputation if your customers get sick.  Or the damage done when your staff goes drinking after work and tell people their thoughts about how you save money in your restaurant.

As far as actual research on the topic, a few experiments have been done.  In 2003, Jillian Clarke, a high school student and intern at the University of Illinois at Urbana performed an experiment using Gummi Bears and Fudge-striped Cookies which determined that these foods were significantly contaminated by even brief exposure (5 seconds) to a tile inoculated with E. coli.

The five-second rule was also featured in an episode of the TV series Mythbusters. They exposed food to bacteria for 2 seconds and for 6 seconds and showed that both were contaminated and there was no significant difference in the number of bacteria collected on food.  It didn’t matter if it was 2 seconds or 6, it was almost equally contaminated. So the myth about food being safe if it was on the floor for less than 3 seconds was “busted”.



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