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Sunday Times STLive By Tiara Walters, 2011-05-21

Getting McWasted

Is it true that McDonald's meals don't rot? And can waste food be put to other uses?

It was not without foreboding that I popped my head back into my kitchen after Easter. Inspired by a new onslaught of urban legends that McDonald's food is immortal, I'd ordered a Happy Meal at the start of the long weekend and left it on the kitchen counter, curious to see if it would surrender to the forces of nature. And then I fled the house, not convinced I had the stomach to bear the smell and the jamboree of ants, flies and cockroaches that seemed likely to follow.

But, as I traipsed back into the kitchen after Easter Sunday, there it was, this Happy Meal burger and chips, without so much as a bug within a five-metre radius and looking as fresh as the day I'd bought it. Unless you poked it, you wouldn't have known it had gone rock hard. It felt like a plastic burger-and-chips play set. And, more weirdly perhaps, there was no odour.

Others have undertaken similar amateur studies. "Best of Mother Earth" blogger and nutritional consultant Karen Hanrahan owns what she claims is an intact 15-year-old McDonald's burger; and, at the end of March, Manhattan artist Sally Davies, whose work features in the private collections of Johnny Depp and Leonard Cohen, released the images she took to document the progress of her "Happy Meal Project".

After sitting prettily on a white china plate in her Manhattan apartment for more than 365 days, Davies's burger and chips looked like they'd just been spat out by the Golden Arches production line.

Why is it that the chow from McDonald's seems impervious to rot? Is it made in some culinary version of hell, Satan himself stoking the braai fires and personally injecting the livestock with formaldehyde to give the meat a longer shelf life? When I put these questions to the multinational fast-food chain, its South African chapter responded with an invitation for a behind-the-scenes tour of their Observatory outlet in Cape Town.

On the day of my visit, senior operations manager Wayne Katz sports a smart blue blazer and jeans rather than a tail, horns and hooves. There is not a pitchfork in sight, and the only thing he brandishes beneath my nose is a harmless-looking pre-mixed salad in a sealed plastic bag.

"Looks familiar to you?" he asks. "This has been mixed by the same company that supplies Woolies with its ready-made salads. There's this perception that we squeeze our salads out of a tube, but it's rubbish.

"And these buns over here," he says, pointing at a fresh delivery of fluffy white rolls, "are supplied by a local supplier, East Balt Bakeries. There's nothing mysterious about our food. We get our meat from another local company, Finlar Foods - they also supply Woolworths with meat, but our formulations are a little different, of course.

"Again, people think we keep our food forever, but we maintain the highest standards and adhere to the sell-by and best-before dates religiously."

John Taylor, a professor in the department of food science at Pretoria University, believes McDonald's is being "unfairly criticised". Food, he says, needs a "hot and humid" environment in order to foster the microbial growth that encourages decomposition - neither Hanrahan's or Davies's experiments make reference to conditions that are favourable to such decay.

I simply left my Happy Meal out on a plate in my home, mimicking the method depicted in the photographs documenting Davies's project.

McDonald's spokeswoman Belinda McKenna claims the company uses "no chemicals and preservatives". Its meat might have a high salt content (a grilled chicken sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato contains 1440mg of sodium versus the 10mg of a side salad) - but salt, says Taylor, cannot be considered an "added chemical preservative".

Denise Metcalfe, a Johannesburg-based food technologist, says there's nothing strange about buns, patties and chips that harden after a few days of being left out on a kitchen counter.

"If you bought the same products from similar chains or made your own at home, they would all react the same way," she says. It's food science 101. And formaldehyde, says Taylor, "has a very unpleasant aroma and harms the texture of meat. It's most unlikely that the urban legend is true."

So, entering the Golden Arches might not be as hazardous as McDonald's haters suggest. Nor are you about to turn into a mummy just because you're partial to the odd Quarter Pounder.

Katz even points out that McDonald's "was voted the best company to work for in a 2010 survey by Deloitte" - but that does not mean it's the best thing that has ever happened to the public, or the environment, for that matter. If fast food was healthy, all of us would eat it, all the time, and still look as ripped as South African rugby player Bismarck du Plessis.

As for improving its green record and eliminating the amount of food McDonald's condemns to landfill, Katz says the company "is looking at that from a global perspective", but admits local outlets still despatch "daily" consignments of organic waste to dumpster land - where decomposing food releases methane, a greenhouse gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

"Once something has been cooked, it's kept in a warming tray with a built-in timer," Katz says. If flat-bread and beef patties, for instance, are still in their individual trays at the 15-minute mark, the timer alerts kitchen staff that the food has expired and must be thrown away.

Katz is unable to quantify how much organic waste a McDonald's kitchen generates, but insists it is "miniscule". Nonetheless, elsewhere in the world, McDonald's biomass trials have found enough organic waste in individual outlets to generate green power.

Since 2007, kitchen leftovers from just 11 outlets in Sheffield have piped hot water to civic buildings in that city and created electricity for the UK's national grid through an innovative power plant driven by organic waste. Similar, if isolated, trials are now running in the US and Australia, where expired salad mixes, buns and patties are being transformed into "nutrient-rich" compost.

For most of the 28000 McDonald's restaurants worldwide, however, including South Africa's 130-odd outlets, it remains business as usual - and what a McWaste of a rich resource that is.

  • After six days on her kitchen counter, Tiara Walters's Happy Meal started to grow mould. All test samples were promptly sent to her organics bin.

The offal truth

  • Fast-food packaging now accounts for most of the litter in the UK's urban areas, NGO Keep Britain Tidy announced at the end of March.
  • Last year New Scientist magazine reported that "more energy is wasted in the perfectly edible food discarded by people in the US each year" than yielded by that country's offshore oil and gas reserves.
  • It is illegal to throw away compostable waste in San Francisco.
  • Pick n Pay and Woolworths donate "substantial" volumes of "recovered" food - food that has reached its sell-by date but is yet to expire - to Foodbank SA, an NGO that redistributes food to 1059 other NGOs countrywide. "One in five SA children under the age of nine suffers from malnutrition," said spokeswoman Angelique Arde. She added that fast-food chains don't donate recovered food to them.

Natural Selection

Had any radioactive sushi lately? Fears over contaminated fish stocks after the Japan earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March have resulted in this somewhat bizarre, if potentially health-savvy, gadget. The brainchild of German inventor Nils Ferber, 25, the Fukushima Plate has a detachable radiation meter that activates fluorescent rings on the plate when your sushi has been deemed less than fit for human consumption. See www.nilsferber.de