Scientists at Rutgers University last month posted their paper on the age-old debate – Is food ok to eat as long as you pick it up off a surface within 5 seconds? Their study, entitled “Longer Contact Times Increase Contamination of Enterobacter aerogenes from Surfaces to Food” as published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology the focuses on this very question. The researchers wondered if this urban myth, that bacteria need time to transfer onto a surface, was true. Their question or hypothesis began with the idea that when food is dropped, it becomes cross-contaminated by the bacteria present on the surface of contact. This contamination leads to foodborne illness – or food poisoning. So, does the transfer happen within five seconds? Is our food safe if we follow this myth?
Dr. Donald W. Schaffner and his laboratory graduate student Robyn C. Miranda call the Food Science Department at Rutgers University home. During Ms. Miranda’s time in Dr. Schaffner’s lab, the pair focused on the rates (or timing and percentages) of bacteria transmission. The two scientists learned the troubling statistic that “12% of all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported foodborne illness outbreaks are caused by surface cross-contamination.” (Miranda, page 4). This statistic is concerning as it is preventable through proper food safety actions. Another factor is that two universities and one television show have explored the myth, but no concrete findings had previously been published. In fact, the popular television show, “MythBusters”, concluded that there was no difference in the amount of bacteria transfer between two and six seconds. Dr. Schaffner and Ms. Miranda wanted proof. In a statement to ScienceDaily.com, Dr. Schaffner commented “We decided to look into this because the practice is so widespread. The topic might appear ‘light’ but we wanted our results backed by solid science.”
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Dr. Schaffner and Ms. Miranda gave the world the evidence it needed to know for certain. Their study found that, in some instances, bacteria cross-contamination occurred instantaneously. You can easily see how longer contact times, depending on the surface, mean that more bacteria are transferred. In their study, they used typical dropped food items, like bread, candy, and watermelon, over four different surfaces that you would find in a typical American household. They tested 128 different scenarios, twenty times each, and measured the results. They also found that typically moist foods, like watermelon and cucumbers, are most likely to have the most bacteria transfer. Dr. Schaffner explained these findings to ScienceDaily.com as, “[t]ransfer of bacteria from surfaces to food appears to be affected most by moisture … Bacteria don’t have legs, they move with the moisture, and the wetter the food, the higher the risk of transfer. Also, longer food contact times usually result in the transfer of more bacteria from each surface to food.”
Their conclusion proves that the five-second rule is real, but that it is an “oversimplification of what actually happens when bacteria transfer form a surface to food.” (Miranda, 18).
What Does This Mean for Us?
The study’s outcome is good news for us. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people in the United States are stricken with foodborne illness each year. Of these, over three thousand people die. These numbers are staggering. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that the financial factor of foodborne illness costs $15.6 billion dollars per year. The study shows that some types of foodborne illness, maybe as much as 12% of them, are preventable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify foodborne illness as a common, but costly, and preventable public health concern. The agency calls it a “Winnable Battle.” This means that if we all do our part, this is an easy problem to solve.
How Can We Prevent Foodborne Illness Relating to Surfaces?
You can help keep yourself and those you love healthy by following some simple food safety practices. For ease of review and as an example, the below are just some of the best resources for food safety and their recommended best practices:
• The United States Department of Agriculture recommends you keep food part from each other – especially raw foods from ready-to-eat ones – in an effort to avoid cross-contamination. The agency recommends storing raw foods away from each other in your grocery basket, placing ready-to-eat foods and produce higher in your refrigerator than raw meats, and using separate cutting boards when engaging in food preparation. The best rule is to not use the same materials, like knives, cutting boards, or plates, on raw food as you do with already prepared food.
• Foodsafety.gov also has some great practices. They recommend storage of food items in separate airtight containers when storing in your refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. They also recommend keeping your refrigerator clean by washing it with warm water and soap to keep harmful bacteria, like Listeria monocytogenes, away.
• The Partnership for Food Safety Education created a program called FIGHT BAC! ® as a wonderful to educate families and children on food safety. The idea behind the process is that there are only four steps to food safety – clean, separate, cook, and chill. Clean all surfaces prior to, during, and after food preparation. Clean your hands. Separate raw and ready-to-eat items. Cook all food to its optimum cooking temperatures. Chill all foods at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. They also recommend that leftovers get stored within two hours of cooking, or within an hour if it is hot outside.
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer tips for food handlers as a way to help prevent illness. Some of these tips include, washing your hands often and not handling food when you are sick.
As always, if you or someone you love is exhibiting symptoms of foodborne illness, like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headaches, and decreased urination to name a few, immediate medical attention is encouraged. Immediate medical attention can not only help prevent additional problems related to foodborne illness, but can also help medical professionals and agencies identify the sources of potential contamination. You can make a difference.
Miranda, R. C., & Schaffner, D. W. (2016, September 2). Longer Contact Times Increase Cross-Contamination of Enterobacter aerogenes from Surfaces to Food. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Retrieved October 13, 2016, from http://aem.asm.org/content/early/2016/08/15/AEM.01838-16