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The National Post article Zombie cheeseburger? McDonald’s patty, bun, cheese unchanged after one year sitting on kitchen counter features a cheeseburger that hasn't changed one year after being left on a table.

Professional nutritionist Melanie Hesketh uses this cheeseburger "to educate our patients that what they’re putting into their bodies may not be healthy," and chiropractor Michelle Prince is quoted as saying that "People forget what real food is."

Does this experiment indicate that there's anything abnormal or unhealthy about its food?

For further evidence of this claim being in the wild, check out this Facebook post by Nutrition-Nurse.com.

Our fast "food" display is now 2 years old. The word food is questionable, since the bread-like and meat-like substances have not molded or spoiled in any way. Bugs won't even bother with it. Please think twice about giving this to your kids. You have a choice, but they don't. We truly are what we eat.

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    sparkasynapse.blogspot.com/2010/11/… is a blog post of someone who did an experiment involving home-made and McDonald's burgers, and looking at differing levels of moisture. Her conclusion is that moisture plays a major role, and McDonald's versus non-McDonald's doesn't. This is only a comment as she's just an ordinary blogger. – Andrew Grimm Jan 20 '12 at 7:38
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    This experiment also concludes that it's about "moisture". And Morgan Spurlock does a decomposing experiment in his documentary Super Size Me – Oliver_C Jan 20 '12 at 12:14
  • I believe the SGU did this one about a year or so ago. If I can find the episode number, I'll put it up, but the findings remain that mold growth is largely a function of moisture as Andrew and Oliver have both noted. – Monkey Tuesday Jan 23 '12 at 23:00
  • It's not just McDonald's burgers that get the "Doesn't spoil, therefore something wrong with it" FUD. Margarine does too: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/8768/… – Andrew Grimm Apr 4 '12 at 13:23
  • Recently a purportedly 14 year old burger was reported: telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10015137/… – Ian Apr 25 '13 at 13:05
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An important part of conducting an experiment is to have a control to compare it against. We can see that this particular burger doesn't seem to be rotting, but is that unusual or unexpected?

Morgan Spurlock, in the movie Super Size me conducted an experiment with a number of McDonald's burgers and burgers from other sources, placing them in glass jars.

The results were that all of the burgers were rotting after a few weeks. (Yes, they were at different rates, but larger samples sizes would be required to see if that was was significant, as well as controlling for more variables, like burger size.)

Another experiment was started here by Serious Eats.

It looked at a number of different questions:

  • Whether it's something in the beef that's keeping the burgers from rotting.
  • Whether it's something in the bun that's keeping the burgers from rotting.
  • Whether it's some sort of magical alchemic reaction that keeps the burgers from rotting only when a McDonald's patty is in contact with a McDonald's bun.
  • Whether it's the size of the patties that are preventing the burger from rotting.
  • Whether it's the storage environment that is preventing the burgers from rotting.

In the conclusion, it found that burgers (McDonalds or home-made) stored in the open air, where they could dry out, had little or no mould. Burgers (McDonalds or home-made) stored in plastic bags that held in the moisture (like Spurlock's glass jars) got mouldy.

Pretty strong evidence in favor of Theory 3: the burger doesn't rot because it's small size and relatively large surface area help it to lose moisture very fast. Without moisture, there's no mold or bacterial growth. Of course, that the meat is pretty much sterile to begin with due to the high cooking temperature helps things along as well. It's not really surprising. Humans have known about this phenomenon for thousands of years. After all, how do you think beef jerky is made?

So, no, McDonald's burgers do not have an unnaturally long lifespan. They have a similar lifespan to other commercial and homemade burgers. Whether they are abnormal or unhealthy is an unrelated question!

Note: Neither experiment was documented in a peer-reviewed journal; I think it will be hard to find a journal that would publish such an experiment.

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    And, I would add, the fact that something does not rot for a long time has nothing to do with its healthiness. For instance, honey can be stored for centuries. – nico Mar 3 '12 at 16:18
  • +1, but should I worry about the fact the debunking experiments aren't written up in peer reviewed journals? – Andrew Grimm Mar 18 '12 at 11:30
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    @Andrew, yes. If there was an answer that included a peer-reviewed experiment, I'd recommend voting it up over this one. – Oddthinking Mar 18 '12 at 11:47
  • btw. hamburgers no doubt contain salt and salt is a preservative – vartec Feb 7 '13 at 13:12
  • @vartec: Yes. But that applies to other commercial and many homemade hamburgers too. – Oddthinking Feb 7 '13 at 14:21

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