I feel like instead of a spoiler warning, I should just tell you that, as with most of Morgan Spurlock’s shock-documentaries, you’ll probably walk away from Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! shivering with disgust and wondering how you can go on living in a world as gross and inhumane as ours. Who can forget the real-life horror footage of vermin crawling out of New York City toilets, or scattering by the dozens from a garbage pile, in his last movie, Rats? Or the destruction to his body — puke, liver disintegration, impotence — when he voluntarily ate McDonald’s three meals a day for a month for his mega-hit Super Size Me?
That first Spurlock-as-guinea-pig film in 2004 broke through at the box office ($22 million on a $65,000 budget), got nominated for an Academy Award, and resulted in McD’s dropping its supersize portions six week after SSM’s debut. It’s still used in high-school health classes. Spurlock’s new follow-up (which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and last week got acquired by YouTube Red for a 2018 release both online and in theaters) is easier on his own body. Instead of taking on the health impact of fast food, he’s going after the industrial complex that results in consumers getting duped and farmers getting financially hosed to the point of contemplating suicide — and he’s packaged it all in an entertaining story of trying to start his own version of Chick-fil-A. Expect jaw-dropping revelations — and to have your ability to eat a chicken sandwich ever again be permanently ruined. Though, Spurlock says, you’d be surprised how good people are at compartmentalizing delicious, familiar food from the horrifying facts that he’s serving up with it. “When the first film came out, there was a divide right down the middle,” he told me in Toronto. “Half the people walked out and were like, ‘I’m never eating at McDonald’s again.’ And the other half were like, ‘I have to go to McDonald’s right now!’”
Spurlock’s inspiration for this sequel came a couple years ago when he got an email from an ad agency pitching a fake-documentary-style commercial where the guy from Super Size Me “investigates” Hardees and Carl’s Jr. and discovers they’re super healthy. He laughed a lot, and then showed it to his production company. “We were like, ‘We should start our own fast-food restaurant and make a movie of it,’” says Spurlock. “And it got very dark, very fast.” (As he says in the movie, “The only way to solve an unsolvable problem is to become a part of that problem.”)
He began by looking at how the fast-food landscape had changed in the past 13 years, in no small part because of that first movie. Kale on burgers at McDonald’s, hummus and quinoa at Wendy’s, calling things “crispy” as a more palatable way of saying “fried” — they’re all part of what Spurlock calls a “health halo” marketing strategy to make consumers feel better about ordering food that is bad for them. Then he set his sights on the most popular food in the world: chicken (9 billion killed for meat in the U.S. annually, for a $48 billion industry). “The reason we picked chicken is the same reason we picked McDonald’s in the first film, because McDonald’s was the biggest, and we eat more chickens every single day in the world than any other animal and any other things that are grown,” Spurlock says. “So we purposefully went after the largest industry in hopes that it would resonate, because it touches all of our lives in some way.”
Chicken sandwiches, the most portable, popular way to eat the world’s most popular food, seemed a natural way in. A quick tour of options proved Burger King’s patties are so not-real they’re practically hollow, and Chick-fil-A’s are so addictive because they’re full of MSG — so Spurlock could already get an edge on the field just by growing his own chickens and being transparent about how they’d been raised. Then, with the help of the food-consulting firm that dreamed up the gordita (CCD Innovation), he conjured up an ingenious sandwich that gave people what they wanted, which is fried chicken (they pick it over grilled 90 percent of the time), while avoiding the dreaded F-word. Enter the ingenious “grilled crispy chicken sandwich,” which is essentially a panko-crusted fried chicken patty, flattened in a press, then painted with black grill marks via charcoal powder and a stencil.
The heart of the movie, though, is Spurlock’s journey raising his own chickens in Alabama with the help of an affable, mustachioed, third-generation farmer named Jonathan Buttram. Spurlock goes to a hatchery to get a bunch of broilers, specifically bred to get so fat so fast their feathers, their legs, and their hearts often can’t keep up. By the time their seven-week lifespan is nearly up, they’re dropping dead by the half dozen. Soon, he’s proving that the words you read on packages at the grocery story are meaningless. He gets to call his chickens “cage-free,” even though meat chickens have never been raised in cages, and it’s not like they’re living the life in their giant, windowless chicken house. “Hormone-free” is equally empty, since it’s already against the law to give poultry hormones — not that that stops anyone from throwing it on a label. The feed Spurlock bought contained pork, but if it hadn’t, he could call his birds “vegan” and “organic” instead of just “100 percent natural” and “minimally processed.” Most galling is when he demonstrates how meaningless the FDA’s definition of “free range” is: All it requires is that he provide a small horseshoe-shaped pen on the lawn just outside the barn door, and that he give the chickens the option of wandering into it for a certain amount of time each day. (None of them do.)
But things get really dark when Spurlock starts delving into the workings of what he calls “Big Chicken,” the mafia-like collusion of five mega-corporations (Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Perdue, and Koch Foods) that provide 99.9 percent of the chickens eaten in the U.S. Farmers sign contracts with them, pay on their own dime to buy land and build chicken houses, and then are subjected to a “tournament” system that arbitrarily ranks them against their neighbors to see who can grow the fattest chickens for the least amount of money — even in cases when the companies have given them sick hatchlings, females (who don’t get as big as males), or stale feed. Farmers who want to give their chickens better living conditions, such as sunlight and fresh air, are forbidden, because happier birds don’t get fat enough. To be at the bottom of the list means getting docked in pay to the tune of $5,000 a flock, which usually results in falling into debt, which gets even worse when the companies force unnecessary upgrades on the chicken houses. It’s hard to stay objective as Spurlock interviews these salt-of-the-earth men as they weep and talk about being indentured servants millions of dollars in debt, with no way out but to keep producing chickens in hopes of climbing back up the ranks. One farmer said he hadn’t had a day off in ten years, and had to go back to placing chickens two days after his son died. Another spoke of his son not being able to join the family business as a fourth-generation farmer because the lifestyle is too depressing.
There’s an ongoing and growing lawsuit that chicken farmers in Kentucky have filed against Tyson for the tournament system (John Oliver did a great summary, above), but speaking out is often accompanied by blackballing within the industry. Buttram (Spurlock’s chicken farmer) was at the Toronto screening, and told me he hasn’t received a flock of chickens from Koch Foods since the company found out he was participating in Super Size Me 2. “They suspended chickens in October, so we don’t have any income since October,” says Buttram. He has 14 chicken houses he’s paid for that are sitting empty, plus two in his wife Connie’s name. They’ve gotten no official word that they’ve been eliminated; they’re just not getting chickens — and have gone from being in debt to being really in debt.
And because the Big Chicken companies are so powerful and have such a monopoly over the business, Buttram can’t get hatchlings from anyone else. “No other company will touch me because I’m blackballed,” he says. “Koch Farms will call Pilgrim’s or they’ll call Tyson and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we don’t want this grower to have any more chickens.’” Buttram’s Plan B, given the retaliation he’d expected from participating in the documentary, was to go around to his neighbors’ farms cleaning out their chicken houses for free and then selling that chicken litter as cow feed for money, or using it to feed his own cows. Now, he claims, he can’t get onto those farms anymore because his neighbors fear they’ll be blackballed, too. “That killed me,” he says. “I didn’t think they’d come after me in that way, but they did. So, basically, we’ve been having to liquidate our cow herd. I had a plan B, but they got that, too.”
At the Toronto Q&A, Buttram talked about how, in recent weeks, he’d had two despondent farmers call him threatening to commit suicide, and had to drive to a diner with his Bible and spend hours talking one of them down from it. (“The poultry company doesn’t care if he kills himself.”) Buttram doesn’t regret being in the movie. “I always help people, no matter the consequences,” he says. “I chose this path knowing there would be consequences. I didn’t think it would get this bad, that I would lose everything I got, but God made me a farmer to take care of those animals that are being mistreated and to take care of the people. That’s the reason I do this.” So for now they’ve filled their houses with 100 free-range layers, and they’re just furnishing everyone in the community with fresh eggs for free.
So, knowing how badly you’re being lied to, and the kind of vise that Big Chicken has put on good, hard-working Americans like Jonathan Buttram, could you then bring yourself to eat a grilled crispy chicken sandwich? That was the exact question Spurlock posed to the Toronto audience, when he directed them at the end of the screening to a “deceptively delicious” Holy Chicken food truck that was handing out the very fast food we’d seen described in such brutal honesty onscreen. It was a mobile version of the pop-up restaurant he’d created in Columbus, Ohio, for the movie, filled with “health halo” colors (green, orange, and white) and words in loopy handwritten script — that if you read a little closer explained that this amazing-seeming healthy meal really was “too good to be true,” and had come from Spurlock raising “thousands of obese chickens.”
The point, Spurlock said, wasn’t to stop anyone from eating chicken, since that’s never going to happen, but to empower people with knowledge. “We wanted consumers to make a difference in their own lives,” he said, just like the people who stop him every day to tell him Super Size Me is the reason they’ve lost 100 pounds. “I don’t think people realize the way your food is grown, the way you’re marketed to, the way we’re lied to and manipulated, and I think this has the chance to cause a consumer reaction that could have an impact on an industry.”
Even in the pop-up restaurant he did, he could see some of the horror sinking in as diners read trays telling them that all the terms that make them feel good about their food sourcing were bullshit, or an illustrated story on the wall explaining the sad story of Buttram and what had happened to his family. “Some people were like, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea,’ and they kept eating,” says Spurlock. “And then there were people who would read the stuff and halfway through their sandwich would be like, ‘I can’t do it, I’m done.’”
Still, even if a solid 50 percent of the audience who see this movie comes out craving a grilled crispy chicken sandwich, that’s a decent market share! Spurlock says that immediately after the success of the Columbus pop-up, they got offers to franchise. “We have investors who want to come onboard to put this out because we’ve already seen that people are responding to someone finally telling them the truth about how terrible the industry is and how bad the food is for you,” he says. “So I think as the film rolls out, there’s going to be some more Holy Chickens popping up.” Did I mention they serve crispy, batter-dipped green beans, too?