It's been 15 years since Morgan Spurlock showed the world what would happen if a person ate only McDonald's for an entire month. But the documentary filmmaker hasn't stopped investigating the fast-food world and how it's evolved since the release of the hit movie "Super Size Me."
Now, Spurlock is ruffling feathers again with his latest film, "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!"
In the movie, Spurlock takes a closer look at how fast food is made by participating in the process from start to finish. First, he sets up his own chicken farm to raise the chicks which will eventually supply the poultry meat used at his very own Chick-fil-A-style restaurant he calls Holy Chicken. TODAY Food spoke to Spurlock about his experience both as a chicken farmer and budding fast-food restaurateur and he revealed a few controversial ideas he wants all consumers to know before they order their next chicken sandwich.
The release of "Super Size Me 2" probably couldn't come at a more relevant time. In August, Popeyes released its first fried chicken sandwich, sparking a very heated Twitter debate among several big chains. Photos showing Popeyes customers lined up like it was Black Friday quickly went viral. Spurlock told TODAY he simply credits serendipity for the fact that his follow-up to the 2004 film is being released on the heels of so many headlines about fried chicken.
"I don’t think it’s wholly a coincidence that this is happening at the same time," Spurlock told TODAY. "I think there are going to be a lot of things pushed to the forefront in terms of 'big chicken' wanting to announce things that they’re going to do to change their chicken practices right around the time the movie comes out."
"Big chicken" refers to the nation's top chicken producers like Tysons and Pilgrim's and, by extension, the companies they supply, like McDonald's.
But the film's first release was mired in controversy. In 2017, Spurlock preemptively and publicly admitted to past sexual misconduct. "Super Size Me 2," which had premiered in a few international markets, was swiftly dropped by Google, which had planned to release it on YouTube Premium's predecessor, YouTube Red. The film was also dropped from Sundance in 2018 and Spurlock stepped away from his production company.
Now the film is being released in the U.S. by Samuel Goldwyn Films, the company behind Spurlock's first "Super Size Me." A representative for the film company declined to comment to TODAY when asked why they decided to buy the film after Google dropped it.
Spurlock also declined to comment about why he decided to go speak out in 2017 but told The Washington Post he didn't want his previous transgressions to take away from the message of the new film. “All I can do is have faith that every day I can continue to be the best person I can and translate that to the work I believe in, which is telling stories that make a difference," he said.
After stepping away from the spotlight, Spurlock now hopes his latest film will inspire people to take a closer look at where their food is coming from and, perhaps, inspire industry-wide change.
Food labels are incredibly misleading
The two primary reasons Spurlock chose to investigate the chicken industry are simple.
For starters, chicken is the most widely consumed animal on the planet. "We eat 50 billion chickens worldwide every year," explained Spurlock, who said this explosion is partially due to the fact that many people think it's the healthiest protein. While chicken meat consumed in moderation is a great source of protein, deep-fried poultry of any kind will never win a health award. "Simultaneously, I thought, better burger places already exist."
"Also, I didn’t have the money to start a cattle farm," he said candidly.
With the help of Alabama-based chicken farmers Jonathan and Zack Buttram, Spurlock starts his own poultry farming operation and learns about the chicken industry monopolies that comprise "big chicken."
He blames this bureaucracy (which he calls "corrupt") for what he calls the greatest chicken myth: We think we're eating something that's better for us than it actually is. For example, in "Super Size Me 2" viewers learn that all it takes for a chicken to be labeled as "free range" means that it has access to a tiny space outside — not that it actually roams outdoors all day.
During a scene in the movie where he's tending chickens on the farm, Spurlock simply opens a barn door and fences in a small, grassless patch of land. Do any of the chickens go outside into the fresh air? No. In fact, he has to chase them to get them remotely close to the door. Not only is it too hot for the birds, but they're so large that they don't really have a desire to be that active. And if Spurlock had fed the chickens organic feed (feed made without genetically modified ingredients, like corn), they would be considered organic, despite the fact they never step outside or eat anything wild.
"We think the birds are being raised in better conditions than they are," said Spurlock, who added that he believes the current USDA labeling approval process is terribly misleading for consumers. "Nobody is looking out for you as a consumer because the people who are now running these governmental agencies are people who came from the chicken companies."
Chickens aren't the only ones getting mistreated
The most shocking thing Spurlock said he learned about the chicken industry wasn't how chickens are treated. It's how farmers are mistreated.
"The worst thing that comes out of this movie is how they (chicken companies) treat the farmers," said Spurlock. "These people are the backbone of feeding our country and you’ve never seen people get more used, abused and mistreated than these farmers by these corporations."
The majority of America's chickens come from farmers who are under contract with larger companies. Every few weeks, these farmers get a new flock of birds to raise. Farmers are paid via a “tournament system" which pits growers against each other to produce more pounds of meat per feed supplied.
But it isn't just the farmers who are suffering, said Spurlock. Flocks aren't faring that well either.
"Today's chickens are so big they can barely walk by the time they go to slaughter," explained the filmmaker. "It used to take months to get a chicken to full maturity, but now it's being done in six weeks." Mature chickens weigh about 6.5 pounds. That's a shocking amount of weight to gain in less than two months.
Contrary to popular belief, this larger-than-life scientific miracle isn't due to hormone injections or steroid usage. It's largely due to years of selective cross breeding. Labeling chicken or eggs as free of hormones is a total marketing ploy since the USDA has prohibited the use of all hormones and steroids in any chicken products since the 1950s. (Hormones are still used legally in beef production.)
Why is the fried chicken sandwich so popular now?
It's pretty clear that fried chicken is the new burger patty ... at least for now, said Spurlock.
"There is this big push right now to become the Five Guys or Shake Shack or In-N-Out of chicken sandwiches," claims Spurlock. He said he sees a very public and aggressive race between restaurants wanting to corner that specific marketplace this year.
"Because of this movie, the world might be ready for the greatest grilled crispy chicken sandwich," he said. Crispy and grilled? The signature item on Spurlock's menu is actually a fried sandwich. But, to make it appear healthier, food stylists paint grill marks on top of the breading to mimic the look of something that seems better for us nutritionally. The sandwich itself is symbolic of what Spurlock and food industry experts call the "health halo" which surrounds a variety of foods being offered up by big companies these days.
At the end of the film, Spurlock's Holy Chicken pop-up restaurant opens in Ohio to much fanfare. Customers are greeted by a wall that explains the chickens' real journey, from hatchery to farm to fast-food table. Phrases such as “all natural,” "goodness" and “local” are boldly displayed along with the truth: “Not sure what all these words actually mean? Great! Because, legally speaking, they don’t mean much.”
"The best part about Holy Chicken is it's the one place that gives you exactly what you want — a great delicious grilled crispy sandwich," said Spurlock. "But we also give you want you need, which is an education into the food system."
"Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!" hits theaters nationwide Sept. 13 and is now available to stream through on-demand services like iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.