A medical review of the documentary Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken

Holy Chicken has its insightful moments, and if you downsize expectations you’ll find much to enjoy.

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken

Morgan Spurlock’s eagerly awaited sequel to Super Size Me focuses on the nation’s most popular fast food: fried chicken sandwiches. As usual, Spurlock exposes the industry by personally infiltrating this world.

He risked his health in the first documentary. In the second, he risks his wealth. While not quite as dramatic, the result is insightful and entertaining even if at times morally ambiguous.

Spurlock resolves to open a new fast food restaurant and talks to brand consultants, commercial food experts, breeders, and farmers. In every scene, he faces one economic or ethical quandary after another.

Vertical integration

Big Chicken (like Big Oil but with chickens) owns the entire supply chain, everything from breeder farms to egg hatcheries. This is a monopolistic system known as vertical integration, designed to strangle competition in the cradle. If this sounds reminiscent of the robber barons from the late 19th Century, that’s because it is. Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil used vertical integration in their original monopolies.

Mistreatment of farmers

But instead of trust busting by Theodore Roosevelt of the past, we now have the USDA supporting the practice because it leads to increased food productivity. The result has been a nightmare for chicken farmers who have lost autonomy and become solely reliant on obtaining eggs and selling chickens to Big Chicken.

These five companies control over 99% of the industry and created a payment system (called the “tournament system” to imply a sporting chance) cleverly designed to propagate debt.

In the documentary, chicken farmers (also called poultry growers) bitterly refer to themselves as indentured servants. That’s not exactly right. Indentured servants are free to work for themselves after a fixed number of years. The more accurate analogy is to call them surfs, beholden to the 5 feudal barons of Big Chicken: Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Sanderson Farms, Koch Foods, and Perdue.

Manipulation of consumers

One concept discussed throughout the documentary is the health halo. The concept here is to ignore less popular healthy food and focus instead on healthy food adjacent (in the “halo” of healthy but not healthy at all).

For example, what if you put a sprig of lettuce on top of a processed slab of meat? That is a health halo.

What if large photographs of vegetables adorn the restaurant where you serve unhealthy processed slabs of meat? That’s another health halo.

What if you take an unhealthy processed slab of meat that increases your risk of colon cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc., and call it “crispy” instead of fried, or “homemade” or “natural” or “fresh”? You get the idea.

It’s a sad commentary on human psychology that this nonsense works at all, but clearly, it does. Come up with a lie that people want to believe and they’ll thank you for it. I guess if you’re going to promote morbid obesity, why not do it with panache surrounded by glossy photographs of spinach and kale?

Holy Chicken

Eventually, Spurlock opens his restaurant and is characteristically honest about how he’s manipulating his customers. He does this by exposing the deceptive language of health halos and the ways farmers and fast food workers are exploited in what amounts to a recap of everything we’ve learned throughout the film.

And Holy Chicken is a roaring success! At least for the three or four days the restaurant was open. Now, people are calling to create franchises (you can sign up here, but please don’t)

This brings us to the awkward ending. Morgan is working from within to expose the industry. OK, I get that, but being a part of the industry makes him part of the problem.

Are we supposed to be thrilled that now he is peddling fried processed heart attacks to customers? So fast food is bad, but it’s okay for him to do it because he’s being honest about the vast dishonesty?

And one quick economic question, if I may. Given that Big Chicken controls over 99% of the industry, how exactly does Spurlock plan to scale this up with franchises? (Note: as of this writing, he hasn’t.)

Conclusion

In many ways, this sequel is just as entertaining and enlightening as the original. The scant references to health frustrated me, but where he really misses the mark is in its effect. Because of his first documentary, Morgan Spurlock provoked the discontinuation of the “Super Size Me” excessive portion option at McDonald’s. He precipitated a long-overdue debate regarding the Western fast food diet.

The many ways in which the fast food industry has adapted since then is what Spurlock confronts throughout the bulk of his sequel. However, the response of the industry to the sequel has been a collective shrug. OK, you got us, so what? You’re also selling unhealthy processed garbage. Welcome to purgatory.

And what of the customers?

Anyone who watches Holy Chicken will have a deeper understanding of how the fast food industry manipulates us into believing fast food has gotten healthier. They will understand how family-owned chicken farmers have lost their autonomy and often go bankrupt. Is this enough to change behavior? Fried chicken (excuse me: “crispy” chicken) sandwiches remain an ever-expanding industry, and consumers retain their ever-expanding waistline.

In the end, Spurlock is asked, “Isn’t this going to discourage people from eating this?” His response is a knowing smile, clearly suggesting this was the plan all along. I’d like to think he is right, but history demonstrates that his optimism is misplaced. I credit him for bringing this issue to light, but his follow-through falls short.

And that was before a second, more serious issue came into play.

Holy Chicken premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. After selling the distribution rights, Morgan Spurlock admitted to a history of sexual misconduct and harassment, resulting in a delayed and discreet release two years later. His message has been buried, and Spurlock has only himself to blame.

Most cringe-worthy moment:

In the first Super Size Me, it was Jarod Fogle of Subway speaking unironically about how food was his “vice” (made before his conviction as a sex offender). For the second Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock gets the nod with this quote early in the film (made before his admission of sexual misconduct):

“If I’ve learned anything out of making a career out of questionable life choices, it’s that sometimes the only way to find the truth and solve a problem is to become part of that problem.”

Yeah, not always.

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken is available for streaming on YouTube under the “Free to Watch” category and on other services like Amazon Prime and Hulu. It is not available on Netflix.

About the Author

David Z Hirsch, MD is the pen name of the author of the award-winning novels Didn’t Get Frazzled and Jake, Lucid Dreamer, both available for purchase on Amazon or may be read for free with Kindle Unlimited. Didn’t Get Frazzled is also available on Audible.

He is an internal medicine physician with an active practice in Maryland.

Check out my other reviews:

A medical review of the documentary Cowspiracy

A medical review of the documentary Down to Earth with Zac Efron

A Medical Review of the documentary End Game

A medical review of the documentary Fed Up

A medical review of the documentary Feel Rich

A medical review of the documentary Forks Over Knives

A medical review of the documentary Heal

A medical review of the documentary In Defense of Food

A medical review of the documentary Sugar Coated

A medical review of the documentary Super Size Me

A medical review of the documentary The C Word

A medical review of the documentary The Magic Pill

A medical review of the documentary The Truth About Alcohol

A medical review of the documentary (Un)well

A medical review of the documentary What the Heath

A medical review of the documentary Why Are We Getting So Fat?

And the video 5 Netflix Health Documentaries Worth Streaming

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