Waste Not! Revisiting the 5-Second Rule and other Kitchen Classics

Working as a line cook for almost four years exposed me to the dirtier side of the food service business. Generally, I was less-than-impressed with the “unofficial” guidelines to handling food and the dinnerware it was to be served on. Should I even be shocked to find that most people I encounter are a little rusty on common food safety standards? Here’s a quick rundown on some of the basics to keeping healthy in the kitchen without being obsessive.

The 5 Second Rule. I’m sure we’re all too familiar with this one: Food that has been dropped on the floor is still acceptable for eating, as long as you pick it up within 5 seconds. While recent research has proven that you may have as long as 30-seconds to retrieve that morsel from underneath the dining room table, other studies suggest that you may not want to bother with that rogue baloney, (which claimed that 2 seconds were too many to avoid salmonella contamination.) While I will openly admit to picking a hard-shelled candy off my own just-cleaned floor for my personal consumption, this is where my frugality ends. Rest assured, if you are eating at my house, I will never serve something that’s fallen below. Ever.

The Magic of Frying. I once witnessed a fry cook put several pieces of raw fish into a fryer after accidentally dropping them onto a swept-up pile of debris on the floor. After expressing my disgust, I was reassured that, “Frying kills dirt. Chill out.” While frying may kill certain types of food borne bacteria, it doesn’t rid the food of dirt or other toxic materials completely. Shockingly, this practice does more to contaminate the fryer for the rest of the food that will be cooked in it.

The Color of Cooked. Most people mistakenly assume that you can tell the doneness of meat simply by looking at color. What they fail to take into account, however, is that meat can come in various shades, regardless of its internal temperature. To be completely certain that your meat is cooked to a safe temperature, use a thermometer, and compare your food to the guidelines issued by the USDA.

Store it Tight. Store it Right. Proper preparation means nothing if food won’t be stored properly. From the moment food leaves the grocery store to the second it hits the table, there are dozens of opportunities for cross-contamination. Meats and fresh produce should never be bagged together, and cutting boards should be used for meat only after all produce has been cut. (For optimal safety, have separate cutting boards for meat.) While most refrigerators are styled to store fruits and veggies on the bottom, this is generally an unsafe practice. Juices from meat stored above can drip down onto produce, causing the unsafe bacteria to breed and grow. Washing fruit and veggies can help with safety, but for optimal assurance, store meat on the bottom in sealed containers.  (For more tips on keeping your food safe, read about insurance for your fridge.) 

Memorizing all the food safety requirements and statistics necessary to be food-safety certified isn’t necessary to be safe in the kitchen. A little education and a whole lot of common sense can be your best defense against illness. (For a listing of the most common questions about food safety, visit the Food Safety.gov’s FAQ.)

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Guest's picture
Blaise Pascal

My father worked as a cook at a few different restaurants in the 60's and ran a few temporary food-service shops in the 70's and 80's. He related the following anecdote regarding exactly this topic.

One of the first cook gigs he got was as a short-order cook at a greasy-spoon style diner. The grills were behind the counter and as such his work was done in full view of the customers. As happens on a busy grill, occasionally he would miss a flip of a burger or something and a lump of cooking meat would land on the floor. He was taught that when that happened to pick it up, throw it away, and start a fresh burger.

Later, he got a job at a more upscale restaurant where the kitchen was in a separate room from the tables and not in view of the customers. As inevitably would happen, he eventually dropped a burger on the floor. So he dutifully picked it up and put it in the garbage. The manager at that point rushed out, pulled the burger from the trash, brushed it off, and put it back on the grill. After all, the grill would kill any pathogens on the meat, and my father shouldn't waste perfectly good meat by throwing it away.

This was probably 40 years ago at this point, so there is no reason to suspect that health regulations would permit that behavior today.

Will Chen's picture

Note to self: only eat in restaurants with open, full-view kitchens.

Guest's picture

Serving food that has fallen on the floor will never happen at my house as my Boston Terrier lays in wait for every crumb that touches the floor and sometimes intercepts before it hits. As my grandchildren learn at very early ages, dropping food on the floor for the dog is often more entertaining than eating.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Gotta love those Boston Terriers  :)

They are better than vacuum cleaners, and you never have to change their belts. 

Guest's picture

I heard the best line several years ago pertaining to all cooks...

"There's one thing that's paramount for every cook to keep in the back of their mind... Only you know what goes on in the kitchen!"

*not advocating serving food off the floor*