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The 5-second rule! Fact or fiction?

The hot dog rolls off the plate or the baby’s cookie falls on the floor. If you pick it up in five seconds, it’s still good, right?

Wrong, says Dr. Jorge Parada medical director of the infection prevention and control program at Loyola University Health System in a news release issued just in time for this weekend’s slew of festivals and picnics. “A dropped item is immediately contaminated and can’t really be sanitized,” he says.

All items that come into contact with a surface pick up bacteria (and dirt!). How much and what kind of depends on what was dropped and where it was dropped.

“If you rinse off a dropped hot dog you will probably greatly reduce the amount of contamination, but there will still be some amount of unwanted and potentially nonbeneficial bacteria on that hot dog,” says Parada, who admits in the Loyola news release to using the five-second rule himself on occasion.

“When it comes to folklore, the ‘five-second rule’ should be replaced with ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ ” he says.

Of course, Parada says there are degrees of risk with contamination.

A potato chip dropped for a second on a clean table is likely to only pick up a miniscule amount of microbes, he says. On the other hand, food that lands on the floor and stays there for a minute is going to pick up more bacteria and pose a greater risk.

You still might eat it – or at least feed that dirty hot dog to your husband or your kids – but Parada, a professor at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, says it’s still contaminated. “At the end of the day, this is a polite social fiction we employ to allow us to eat lightly contaminated foods.”

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