Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Case of the Mummified Burger

It's true - if you have read the internet (at least the gossipy, meme-ridden parts that I read) in the past week or so you have come across the case of the Mummified McDonald's Burger. The evidence so far in this case consists of several accounts of McDonald's hamburgers mysteriously failing to rot or in any way decompose after long periods of storage at room temperature. See examples here, here, and here. Conclusions that McDonald's burgers are full of strange chemical preservatives and don't actually contain any food have become so widespread that McDonald's actually issued an official response, stating that their burgers are actually made of 100% beef. Do McDonald's burgers actually spit in the face of normal decomposition, or is this a scare tactic used by those who aim to convince consumers to eat less fast food (an aim I support, I assure you)?

I, for one, think that McDonald's is probably not lying to us about the contents of their burgers, urban legends about worm meal aside. I think that a McDonald's burger is probably actually made of 100% beef, although it's probably full of processed meat scraps from factory farmed cattle that have been pumped with antibiotics and corn for most of their lives. Still, the FDA still calls that "beef," and it should rot, no?

I suspect that what's happening here is that the non-rotten burgers are full of salt and fat, two things that don't decompose quickly and tend to inhibit microbial growth. Add to that a very low level of moisture, and you have a mummified burger. Ancient Egyptians didn't rot, either, even though they weren't full of new-fangled chemical preservatives. Some Egyptian mummies were preserved with natron, a mixture of sodium carbonate and bicarbonate (aka baking soda) used to remove moisture from the bodies, and others were preserved by the hot dry environment alone. I would guess that a Mickey-D's burger has enough salt to preserve a measly quarter pound of cooked beef pretty well. Importatly, however, I don't have any evidence to prove this, so it's not a scientific conclusion.

What we need is a controlled experiment! Enter our heroes at Serious Eats Blog A Hamburger Today, where the Burger Lab is putting it's money where it's (and my) mouth is (are?) by testing burgers of the same size and shape, some from McDonald's and some home-made, to see if they rot any differently. I eagerly await the results of this experiment. We'll see if there is something magical about the McDonald's hamburger that preserves it so well, or if we're going to have to come up with a less simple way of explaining to consumers that fast food is bad for you.

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