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The National Saga of the (Non)Rotting Hamburger

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 8, 2010 7:00PM

For the last few months, the internet has been all a-tizzy watching time-lapse photographs of a McDonalds hamburger failing to rot, despite sitting out on a counter for months and months at a time. Horrified consumers have wondered if the sheer artificiality of these foodstuffs make them incapable of decomposing. Salon and Comsumerist have both written stories explaining the "why" of the burgers - they don't have enough moisture, the bread has preservatives. Some burgers have sat for more than 10 years, though the current crazy was started as an art project by Sally Davies, who decided to take pictures of a happy meal every day until it rotted. It never did.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, writing for Serious Eats, gave this entire saga a twist last week. After conducting controlled tests of a large series of burgers, some McDonalds, some homemade and some from other chains, Lopez-Alt concluded that, surprise, hamburgers just don't rot. Ever. Doesn't matter what hamburger. Lopez-Alt also points out that a survey of the large literature on this subject reveals no other studies of this type - instead, writers are constantly astonished by the lack of bacterial decomposition and assume that the fault must be with the chain and its food practices.

If you want to see a serious exercise in food science, go take a look at Lopez-Alt's study, with graphs and everything. We still wouldn't endorse McDonald's hamburgers on culinary grounds, but maybe we can finally put this meme to bed.