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 Ėsee 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?


W. C
W. C12 months ago

Thank you for the article.

Abbe A.
Azaima A5 years ago


Janet G.
Janet G6 years ago

Grateful to be a Vegan and previously a Vegetarian since the 80's. Blessed, totally bless! Why is this food legal in a world with mega cases of increased asthma?

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin7 years ago

McDonald's burgers sucks! They have no taste, no texture, are hard to eat and all in all a bad choice for a meal. If you have one of their Happy Meals you will be hungry again within an hour. The preservatives they use stay in your body for a very long time, the fat, salt and sugar makes you lose health and gain weight. What is there to like about McD? And why feel sory for their loss of the San F market? If you want healthy fast food there are plenty of places you can visit. Real vegoburgers made from spinach, with plenty of fresh veggies, carrot sticks and a glass of freshly made fruit juice will make both your body and yourself happy and filled up. Stop supporting these enormous corporations with their questionable support of farm factories, murders of union activists and obesity running amok in the Western world! And parents responsibilities? Yeah, right. As if that's going to happen on a larger scale. It's much easier to cave in to the kids when they demand fast food than to place a plate with wholesome food in front of them that hasn't emerged from the micro wave! The budgets of ad and marketing departments of McD and other in that business equals some small countrie's annual state budget. And you think those ads that are shown when kids watch their favorite shows are going to make it easier to resist the kids? I support any measure to decrease fastfood joints in any urban area. Go for it, San Fransisco!

Vanessa B.
Vanessa B7 years ago

Once you find out that McDonald's and most other FF restaurants use premade burgers that contain ALL PARTS OF THE COW...and mostly not "real meat", it makes you think twice about eating there food.

If that doesn't stop you, they're support of factory farming should....the only place that adds beef products to their french fries.

Sonny Honrado
Sonny Honrado7 years ago

Fast food is for those who do not have time to cook and look for better food than those served by McD.

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago


K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

donna colby
donna colby7 years ago

thank you

Denina T.
Denina T7 years ago

I wonder how different the world would be without McDonalds.