What Rot? The Lasting Power of the McDonald’s Happy Meal
The McDonald’s fast food chain is no stranger to controversy. It seems like any given moment, there are a handful of flare-ups implicating the McDonald’s corporation of all sorts of wrongdoings, and/or nefarious activities. Strangely, as vilified as they are, they are able to maintain their good standing with much of hungry America. I drive by the golden arches nearly everyday and see cars queued up and idling in the drive-thru line just waiting for that ubiquitous, and never-changing product.
Never-changing is the operative term here, as one of McDonald’s most popular and enduring menu items, the Happy Meal, has weathered a great deal of criticism and denunciation of recent. The McDonald’s Happy Meal, for those of us that have not had the pleasure, is a packaged meal in a box marketed towards children, usually consisting of a hamburger, fries, a soft drink, and a toy, which is usually a tie-in for a popular cartoon franchise or a blockbuster kids movie (e.g. Harry Potter, Cars, etc). Most recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, seeing the Happy Meal as a nutritional threat to children by drawing diners in with a toy, rather than sensible nutrition, passed an ordinance requiring meals that included toys with their purchase to meet strict nutritional requirements, thus putting a temporary ban on the three decade long tradition. As Joe Eskenazi of the SF Weekly reported, “It seems the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has accomplished what the Hamburglar never could. They’ve made off with McDonald’s fare.”
The fate of the Happy Meal, at least in San Francisco, hangs in the balance. Knowing McDonald’s, and having somewhat of an understanding of big business, they will ultimately be compliant and give the people (or the Board of Supervisors) what they want in the form of a more nutritionally balanced meal. But there will certainly be backlash, as this bad has made for quick comedic fodder for both bloggers and late night television. Some critics of the ordinance claim it is draconian, and that parents, not local government, should decide what their children eat, no matter how calorie-intensive.
While this drama plays out (and it will most certainly play out), San Franciscan children will just have to endure without all that “happy” in their meal. But that should be OK, considering recent evidence that has set the blogosphere a blaze with excitement. New York-based photographer, Sally Davis, after reading online about a school teacher with a 12-year-old McDonald’s burger that had not yet decomposed, decided to conduct the experiment herself. Six months ago Davis (an avowed vegetarian) purchased a McDonald’s Happy Meal and began documenting the degeneration (or lack thereof). Essentially nothing happened, and the Happy Meal under documentation remained unchanged for months (and is still going strong –see pictures here). This bit of amateur science got picked up by just about every blog and media outlet, in an effort to illustrate how McDonald’s food resists the natural order of things, and therefore must be wholly unnatural itself. Strangely enough, another documentarian Morgan Spurlock, best known for his public skewering of McDonald’s in his film Super Size Me, had done a similar experiment some years back with very different results (see video here, part one, and part two). As is evidenced here, the McDonald’s French fry is the only item that is seemingly impervious to the elements.
Nevertheless, detractors have sounded off, and other experiments have followed; this time using a control to make the experiment somewhat scientific. Food detectives over at a Hamburger Today did a similar experiment with a homemade burger, and observed near-identical results. Some thought it might be the sodium or fat content of the burger, according to the Hamburger Today investigators, it’s not the salt that does it, it’s all about surface area and moisture loss. A regular hamburger, McDonald’s or otherwise, is just too flat and well cooked to retain enough moisture to let mold grow (see their detailed results here). While I have some difficulty swallowing this explanation in its entirety, the fact that (if you are to accept this evidence) all hamburgers seem to be impervious to decay does not exactly instill confidence about consumption.
Whether Happy Meals are slated for the cultural trash heap, to become fossilized and eternal like Styrofoam packing material, we just can’t be sure. What is for certain is that the McDonald’s corporation will be working overtime to keep the Happy Meal viable and available (no matter what form it may be in).
The fact that McDonald’s food is seen as unhealthy is hardly news, but does any of this news influence your eating habits. Lord knows, it’s not just the Happy Meals that resist entropy. Do you think it is inappropriate for local government to step in and decide what is healthy for children? And San Francisco? Really? Isn’t this probably the place that sells the least amount of Happy Meals? Shouldn’t this ordinance be put in place somewhere where the obesity rate is far higher? Is it too little too late? Is there nothing enduringly happy about the Happy Meal?