Why I eat food off the floor

Okay, not always.  It depends on the food and the circumstances, but I figure I’m mostly relying on my hardy immune system most of  the time anyway.  I would think nothing of picking one of Sarah’s toys up off the floor and then using that same hand to eat a tortilla chip.  So, why not just eat a tortilla chip that fell on the floor?  Aarron Carroll with a great piece in the Upshot on why it probably is okay to eat food off the floor:

Our metric shouldn’t be whether there are more than zero bacteria on the floor. It should be how many bacteria are on the floor compared with other household surfaces. And in that respect, there are so many places in your house that pose more of a concern than the floor… [emphases mine]

They found that the kitchen floor was likely to harbor, on average, about three colonies per square inch of coliform bacteria (2.75 to be exact). So there are some. But here’s the thing — that’s cleaner than both the refrigerator handle (5.37 colonies per square inch) and the kitchen counter (5.75 colonies per square inch).

We spend so much time worrying about what food might have picked up from the floor, but we don’t worry about touching the refrigerator. We also don’t seem as worried about food that touches the counter. But the counter is just as dirty, if not dirtier…

Things get dirty when lots of hands touch them and when we don’t think about it. We worry about the floor and the toilet seat, so we clean them more. We don’t think about the refrigerator handle or the faucet handle as much…

Think about how many people have handled the money in your wallet. Astudy of one-dollar bills found that 94 percent were colonized by bacteria, 7 percent of which were pathogenic to healthy people and 87 percent of which were pathogenic to people who were hospitalized or who had compromised immune systems. Where do you keep your money? In a wallet or purse? When did you last clean it? It’s probably filthy.

I see people pay for food every day and then eat what they’re handed with no concern that the food might have been contaminated. And the money and the hands that just held it could be much dirtier than the floor…

All of this should remind you that it’s always a good idea to wash your hands before you eat. Hand-washing is still one of the best ways to prevent illness.

People react to news like this in one of two ways. One is to become paranoid about everything. Such people start to clean compulsively, worry about all the things they’re touching, and use hand sanitizer obsessively.

The alternative is to realize that for most of us, our immune systems are pretty hardy. We’ve all been touching this dirty stuff for a long time, without knowing it, and doing just fine…

I clearly fall into the latter group. If I drop food on the floor, I still eat it. I do that because the harm I might get from the floor is not worth my concern compared with many, many other things. You may feel differently. Either way, make an informed judgment based on relative risks, not on any arbitrary span of time that one thing has been touching another.

More often than not, I probably don’t actually eat food off the floor, but given that open my refrigerator is likely far more hazardous, it’s certainly not something I’m going to worry about.

Spilled candy.

Spilled candy.
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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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