The Five Second Rule Is A Myth, And Other Revelations

Think you know how to keep your food safe to eat and avoid food poisoning? There are many myths about food safety: we’ve sorted the fact from the fiction to help you prepare and store food that won’t have you running for the loo.

Fiction: The Five Second Rule

Who hasn’t dropped food on the floor, only to whip it up quickly and deem it OK for consumption by quoting the ‘five second rule’?

You might know it as three, five or ten seconds, but all you really need to be sure of is that the five second rule is a flat out myth. When it comes to getting germs on your food, it turns out it doesn’t matter so much how long your food has been on the floor; it’s what it’s landed on that is the issue.

Researchers at Clemson University investigated the myth and found that different surfaces allow for bacteria to transfer to food at different rates. Hard surfaces like tiles or wood had faster transference rates, while carpet had a slower rate of transference, though chances are woolly food is nobody’s favourite.

Of course, you’re more likely to get sick if you drop your sandwich on the bench and into a puddle of old chicken juices teeming with salmonella than if it lands on a clean surface. Avoiding cross contamination by keeping surfaces and utensils clean is a better way to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and germs than relying on speedily picking up the food before germs can get attached.

Fact: There Is A Proper Way To Stack Your Fridge

While the “throw it all in and hope it gets cold” method of stacking the fridge might be quick, incorrect fridge stacking can lead to some foods sitting in the ‘temperature danger zone’ and increase the risk of cross contamination.

Stack your fridge properly by:

  • placing raw meats on the bottom shelf of the fridge so that any spilled juices can’t drip on other foods
  • separating and covering cooked and raw foods, and putting the cooked foods on a shelf above the raw
  • understanding how your fridge works – like safety demonstrations say on planes, they’re all different – and where you should store particular foods like dairy or fresh fruit and vegetables
  • setting your fridge to be less than 5ºC
  • and not jam-packing the fridge so full that air can’t circulate.

You should cool left over food as quickly as possible. Leave it on the bench until it has stopped steaming, then place it in the fridge immediately. Storing leftovers in small, shallow containers will help them cool quickly. When you’re reheating cooled food, reheat until it is steaming (literally!) hot.

Fiction: Rice, Pasta And Lentils Are Great Because They Can Be Made In Bulk And Stored All Week

Unfortunately, dry foods like rice, pasta and lentils can contain spores of a bacterium called Bacillus cereus, which can give you food poisoning. These spores are able to survive being cooked, and can turn into bacteria that thrive in warm, moist conditions, multiplying quickly if leftovers stay at room temperature. The bacteria release a toxin into the food that causes vomiting.

If you’re having a food prep party and are not going to eat rice, pasta or lentils straight after cooking, they should be cooled in the fridge to help slow the growth of any bacteria. Reheat these foods until they are steaming hot the whole way through, and eat within two days of cooking.

Fact: Frozen Meat Should Be Thawed In The Fridge Or Microwave, Not On The Bench

It’s likely that the temperature on your kitchen bench is going to sit somewhere between five to 60 degrees, or in the food ‘temperature danger zone’. At these moderate temperatures, the bacteria that cause food poisoning can thrive.

Leaving your meat on the bench to defrost can mean that the outside of your meat can reach dangerous temperatures while the middle of the meat thaws. It’s kind of like when you shove a nice, hot party pie in your gob, only to find out that the middle is still horrifyingly cold, with just as much potential for food poisoning.

Instead of the bench, defrost your meat in the fridge, where it will all stay below five degrees, or defrost it in the microwave. If using the defrost setting on the microwave, food should be cooked and consumed immediately.

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Fiction: ‘Best Before’ And ‘Use-By’ Mean The Same Thing

Ever looked at the date stamped on your food, seen it has passed, and eaten it anyway? This could have different consequences depending on whether it was the date that your food would be ‘best before’, or the date that it needed to be ‘used-by’.

A ‘best before’ label tells you how long a product will be at its best quality. After this date, the food should still be safe to eat, but it might not taste as good as it could.

‘Use-by’, on the other hand, is a hard and fast rule that must be followed. This is the date that your food needs to be consumed by before it becomes unsafe to eat.

Fiction: Smelling Food Will Tell You If It’s Safe To Eat

The bacteria that causes food poisoning usually doesn’t change the smell, appearance or taste of food. This means that you could still be ingesting harmful bacteria even if your food seems perfectly fine.

The best way to tell if you shouldn’t eat your food is to check the ‘use-by’ date and make sure you’ve prepared and stored it correctly. Remember: If in doubt, throw it out!

Fact: Leftovers Need To Be Refrigerated Straight Away

Food that’s leftover, whether it’s from a meal, a snack or a party platter, needs to be refrigerated as soon as possible. Put warm food into shallow containers so it cools quickly. Perishable food that has been left out for more than four hours, like dairy, meats or takeaway leftovers, should be thrown away.

It’s best to eat any leftovers within 24 hours, with reheated foods steaming hot before serving.


Tips with thanks to Queensland Health.