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It’s happened to all of us. You’re about to dig into something really yummy. The anticipation is culminating. You guide the item toward your eagerly awaiting mouth when, OH NO, it falls on the ground! The surging craving that would have climaxed into deep satisfaction is now tortuously frustrated and compounded by anger and disappointment. Fusillades of scurrilous expletives erupt from the enraged maw that would have been basking in fulfillment were it not for the cruel hand of gravity. Something must be done. This state of affairs is intolerable. So you retrieve it from the floor, raise it toward the heavens and………….kiss it up to God. The Almighty will extend his benevolence and cast off the germs from the fallen victual. At least that’s what happened when we were kids. But why?
Reality is far too often a hard pill to swallow. It assaults us emotionally and psychologically. Sigmund Freud realized this. He posited that humans employ a host of “defense mechanisms” for mitigating the harshness of reality. These are all the little mental tricks we play on ourselves to make the tribulations of life more palatable. One of these self-ruses is called “undoing.” Undoing is engaging in an activity which is the opposite of an underlying and disavowed impulse. For example, you have urges to strangle your boss which offends the dictates of your conscience. You assuage your angst by “killing” him or her with kindness. But undoing can be utilized to deal with an unpleasant scenario, not just an objectionable inner striving. You really want to eat that cream-filled doughnut you just dropped, but you’re grossed out by the germs and other assorted ickies that now sully it. So you kiss it up to God. Problem solved; doughnut enjoyed.
Of course this recourse only works for children. Most adults realize that even if a supreme being exists, he probably has a more pressing agenda than suspending the laws of the universe for the sake of our fumbled sandwich. So instead we’ve developed the “Five Second Rule.” Everyone’s heard of this one. There’s even a grain of truth to it. The best defenses are the ones ensconced in a shred of validity. The Five Second Rule asserts that if the bobbled food is recovered before resting on the ground for five seconds it is safe to eat. This is the adult version of undoing.
Believe it or not scientists have done studies on the Five Second Rule, or more specifically, the bacterial residue retained on food that has touched contaminated surfaces.
There are a number of issues to consider when assessing the degree of befoulment of dropped food. Microorganisms, of which bacteria are but one type, are quite ubiquitous. However, this doesn't imply that every single object in the physical universe is overflowing with germs. It's quite possible that the entity in question doesn't harbor bacteria to an appreciable degree. Moreover, if it does, it may not be disease-producing bacteria. Remember that not all bacteria are harmful. Some are actually needed to maintain normal human physiology.
A fascinating tidbit emerged from the research sited in the above hyperlink. The experimenters swabbed sections of their university floor, including walkways in very busy areas. Amazingly, they found almost no microbes. Granted, the floors inevitably contained dirt, dust and other miniature debris, but contrary to what most of us would have assumed, practically no bacteria.
Actually this really doesn’t surprise me. I’ve worked in many restaurants in my life and food gets dropped all the time. And don’t even think for a moment that the chefs are frequently washing their hands either. So why aren’t the obituaries as thick as a phonebook? Well, as stated, not all superficies contain disease-producing bacteria. But more importantly, if the mishandled food is being cooked, it's all a moot point. The archenemy of bacteria is heat, not soap and water or latex gloves. Ironically, while composing this article I took a break to make some mac & cheese. I inadvertently spilled some of the pre-cooked pasta on my kitchen floor. No matter. It was headed for boiling water which would eradicate any pathogens. Some people may still be grossed out by that, but rationally and scientifically I had nothing to fear. Bacterial infestation is more of an issue with food that's eaten raw, or has already been cooked and then become fouled.
Putting the cooking issue aside for the moment, let's assume your food falls onto something that is indeed infected. If bacteria are present, then inevitably some of them will be transferred to the food. This happens virtually instantaneously, not after five seconds. However, the kernel of truth to the Five Second Rule is that the longer the exposure, the greater number of bacteria that will be transmitted. Moreover, the volume of bacteria present on the object the food is adjoining is also important. Obviously, the more tainted the object, the more defiled the food will be.
So to recap: 1) It's possible a particular surface may not contain any significant bacteria and more importantly, may not contain any disease-producing bacteria. 2) If bacteria are present there will be some displacement onto the food even with very brief contact. The more bacteria present and the longer the contact, the greater number of bacteria transferred. 3) If the food is to be cooked to a temperature that kills the bacteria, the whole issue is academic.
I should also point out that food left out, even on a clean platform will eventually become spoiled. It’s just a matter of time until hostile bacterial marauders do arrive. Any food, even if resting on a sterile plate, if left on your kitchen counter long enough, will eventually transform into a bacterial buffet.
In the end it all comes back to the human psyche. You’re either a germaphobe, overreacting to a danger perceived disproportionately to the actual reality, or someone who takes normal precautions but basically doesn't get into a twist about such matters.
On our honeymoon, my wife and I took a whirlwind journey through most of France with a side jaunt to northern Italy. One day we schlepped from Bordeaux to Turin. With no direct link between those cities we had to take a train from Bordeaux to Paris and then another from Paris to Turin. In-between trains in the Paris station we had just enough time to grab something to eat from a fast food stand. It was quite crowded and we waited on a long line. Finally we got our sandwiches with perilously enough time to wolf them down before the next train. As we took a seat I dropped mine, spilling the chicken breast onto the highly trafficked floor. Quite hungry, and out of time I said “**** it” and stuck it back between the bread. I never got sick and went on to enjoy my honeymoon. I had the ultimate anti-bacterial agent: a healthy realization that there was actually little risk involved. I was also more hungry than I was squeamish. You don’t need to kiss it up to God when you adopt a devil-may-care attitude.