Decomposition 101

Prepare to have your taste buds tempted, then your stomach turned.  We’re doing quasi-science in this installment of In the Woods.

Pop culture has embraced the notion that McDonald’s burgers aren’t food as evidenced by the Bionic Burger “experiments”.  If you’re not familiar, it’s a handful of people who have kept Mickey D’s burgers for over 20 years with no appreciable changes to the sandwich.  They claim that because the sandwich wasn’t consumed by mold and insects, nor did it stink (evidence of bacterial growth), that it must not be healthy or even real food. 

My friends will testify that I don’t darken the doorways of fast food restaurants.  I’ve essentially sworn off them, although I don’t have an ax to grind against them either.  If people want to eat there, they have the freedom to do so.   I’m a gastro-libertarian, which is important to keep in mind as you read on. 

I’m also a huge fan of venison (both the shopping for and eating of), so one night while visiting with my wife and a good friend from college, talking about the Internet phenomenon of teenaged McDonald’s burgers, I got the idea to test the longevity of a venison burger. Would it be as long lasting as a McDonald’s burger? Would it decompose faster and prove itself healthier by the Bionic Burger standards?

Here’s the setup for the experiment, which also happens to be another reason why you should positively i.d. anything before eating at my house.

All the fixin’s for a great venison burger… only to be sacrificed for a science thing!

I prepared a homemade venison burger the way I make every venison burger at the Kjellesvik household, with seasoning, salsa and Tabasco sauce.  Once cooked, to stay as true to the McDonald’s experience as possible, I topped it off with sautéed onion slivers, pickles and ketchup, then forgot to put the fries in the bag.  I used two pieces of whole grain bread for a bun. 

This next part broke my heart because I still smell the rich patty and feel its warmth emanating through the bread.  I’m sorry.  I’m having a moment…I locked the burger up in a wire crawdad trap. It seemed so wrong, but it was all for science. 

I closed up the trap, placed it onto the grate of my Weber out on the deck, then put the lid over it in case of rain.  There was still plenty of room between the lid and the grill for air to circulate and insects to come and go. The trap would hopefully discourage a neighborhood animal from stealing my homework.  Keeping the burger outside was key in this experiment for two reasons:

  1. My wife’s good nature has its limits.  Rotting hamburgers on display in our Great Room would undoubtedly breach those boundaries.
  2. One of the main platforms of the eterna-burger hypothesis is that the McDonald’s sandwich is so bad and unnatural that even insects and bacteria won’t eat it.Kept inside, sometimes even in the original packaging, it seemed to me that insects may not have an opportunity to access the sandwich.

I’ve had enough *scientifical training to know that an experiment needs a control for comparison.  So, with the sheepishness of a teenager asking an adult to buy him beer, I called my buddy and asked him to pick up a McDonald’s hamburger for me.  That burger, I placed into another trap and stacked it atop of the venison burger cage.  Now I could watch what happened to each sandwich over a ten day period.  I didn’t expect much change from the Mcburger because of the Internet lore behind it. 

What follows is a side by side graphic comparison of how each burger held up outdoors.  The venison burger is on the left.  The McDonald’s burger is on the right.  If you have a weak stomach, you may want to jump to the conclusion as the photos get progressively graphic. 

Day One – Lots of tasty on the left.  Lots of “Meh” on the right.   

Day Two – A little paler and some mold growing on the venison burger. Fly eggs have been deposited on both patties.

Day Three – You want larvae on both burgers?  There’s a 50₵ upcharge for that, just so you know.

Day Four – Both sets of buns could deflect a .22 round now.  The McDonald’s patty is drying faster (probably due to its greater surface area to mass) than the venison burger.  The maggots are still chowing down but are limited to the remaining moist areas of the McDonald’s burger.  They’ve got free reign of the entire venison patty.  The venison burger is a 6 on the 1-10 funk factor scale.  The McDonald’s burger smells about the same as it always did. 

Day Five – Here’s where things get interesting.  The venison burger maggots have grown larger in the same amount of time as the McDonald’s maggots. 

Day Six – The maggot growth rate disparity is still evident…and my venison burger pickle is almost gone. 

Day Seven – Today, most of the venison burger maggots have completed their larval stage and flown away.  The same cannot be said of the McDonald’s burger.  There’s still a ton of maggots that have grown only incrementally larger.

Day Eight – A tumbleweed blew across the venison burger.  Those McDonald’s maggots are still fighting it out on an ever increasingly dry burger patty. 

Day Nine – Mold is the most prolific life form on the venison burger while the same mass of maggots is still trying to make a meal out of the McDonald’s burger.  There’s no mold on the McDonald’s burger. 

Day Ten – A carrion beetle scurried out of the venison burger when I unbunned it this morning.  There were noticeably fewer maggots on the McDonald’s burger today.  Sometimes when you love someone, you’ve got to let them go.  Our little ones finally made it to their adult stage three days after their venison-grown counterparts. 


  • Both burgers were consumed by maggots, although the venison burger was consumed at a faster rate.
  • The venison burger grew mold and the McDonald’s burger did not. 
  • The maggots on the venison burger grew faster and seemed to complete their larval stage in less time.
  •  The venison burger had a terrible odor after day three.  The McDonald’s burger took longer to stink and once it did, wasn’t nearly as bad as the venison burger and still had the signature McDonald’s smell.

Non-Scientific but Apparently Common Sense Conclusions

What can we say now?  If you want to grow maggots big and fast, use a venison burger!  For those of us who aren’t interested in insect husbandry, you might be able to say the venison burger is better for you because it appears to decompose more naturally than a McDonald’s burger.  That’s not a scientifically reliable conclusion, but you could still draw that conclusion with relative safety.  I know if I had the choice between the two sandwiches, I’ll take venison burgers all day long. 

The good news for anyone who’s been fearing well preserved McDonald’s burgers is the myth that they aren’t food appears to be busted.  Though slower, the maggots were still able to consume part of the patty.  I’m not advocating becoming a regular at any fast food restaurant, but as a treat every now and again, it’s probably not a big deal.  I don’t know the motives of the bionic burger people, but I think they’ve been at least disingenuous in propagating this myth.      

Being close to your food source is the best way to ensure you and your family are getting the safest, healthiest nutrition.

With the rising cost of beef, renewed interest in home meat processing and concerns about our mass food production infrastructure, hunters are looking like Noah when the sky started clouding up. We’ve known for years that being closer to our food ensures we’re getting what the Maker intended. 

Initially, I thought this experiment would highlight the closer-to-nature characteristics of venison, which happened, but in the process, we unintentionally debunked the Bionic Burger lore too.  So, when you can, choose venison and other wild game, but if you’re in a pinch and have to swing by for fast food once in a while, don’t feel too bad.    

* Not a real word