Some Skeptical Clarity to the Unrottable McDonald’s Burger Videos/Photos

October 18, 2010

I’m sure you’ve seen (or at least heard about) the photo project where a plain McDonald’s hamburger has been left out for a half-year now, and it hasn’t rotted away.  Well, I wanted to point you to an article Dr. Steven Novella wrote over at Skepticblog and Neurologica: The Burger “Experiments”.  His view is that the videos and photos are misleading and very bad science.

The infamous hamburger at 180 days

The takeaways:

I note that McDonald’s hamburgers are thin and thoroughly cooked, and will therefore dry out quickly (especially in a dry environment) – too quickly for mold to form. Thoroughly cooked meat should also be free of bacteria to cause rotting. So in the end you will have a dried hard patty, but it will not become moldy nor will it rot.

I do not think there is anything inherent to the ingredients of the hamburger that will significantly affect whether or not it molds or rots – which is the exact implication of these YouTube videos. In order to conclude that it is the hamburger ingredients that are to blame, experiments that control for thickness, degree of cooking, and environment need to be done so that the property of the burger itself is isolated as a variable.

He also spends some time discussing how taking ONE hamburger from ONE store and subjecting it to ONE test makes for ONE interesting observation, yes, but that it’s not nearly enough to use to make big sweeping conclusions like the McDonald’s alarmists are doing.

A similar article over at Salon interviewed some food experts who discussed how things like cooking temperature and fat content can have an effect on the spoilage of a food product.

“Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” says Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University department of food science. And low moisture means less room for mold to grow.

For better or for worse, McDonald’s is no more a chemical laboratory of secret compounds designed to embalm us from the inside than any other processed food maker. A Happy Meal manages to stay unspoiled because it is fatty, salty and practically empty of nutrients — which, really, are all good reasons to avoid it anyway.

So if you want to avoid McDonald’s, at least do it for the right reasons.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go get a Big Mac…

…Rob T. is lovin’ it.™

(Actually, I prefer the double cheeseburger – it has the right meat-to-bun ratio)