Veteran documentary maker takes on fast food chicken and assures us ‘honesty never tasted so good’
Many of us right now probably need a reminder that ordering take-out every day is not a good idea. This film will certainly do the job. Billed as the follow-up to his wildly successful Supersize Me, in which he lived on McDonald’s for a month, Spurlock’s 2017 film looks at the burgeoning fried chicken industry with an equally critical eye. Taking a different approach to his original film, in this documentary he chooses to go straight to the source, and sets up his own ‘farm to table’ fast food outlet, the eponymous Holy Chicken!.
This is a clever setup, as it allows him to holistically approach all the different levels of deceit involved in the industry, from the food itself to the marketing and welfare of the animals. Our main takeaway is that words are just that: only words. Raising his own chickens, from eggs to the six (only six!) week old, heart attack-ridden broilers that are sent to slaughter, he brutally demonstrates the dishonesty that pervades the US food industry. From ‘hormone-free’ to ‘all natural’ he shows that these are based on nothing, and can be used by almost anyone. Perhaps most disappointing is ‘free range’. Most of us would think of bucolic images of chickens running through fields before returning to cosy coops, tired after a long day of having fun. This is sadly far from the reality. Spurlock is able to call his birds, of which there are hundreds, ‘free range’ simply by giving them a single square foot or two of access to the outside world. It is ‘access to the outside’ that matters, not the amount of space they get there. (Of course the legal definition of free range varies depending on country.)
Beyond the chickens themselves, Spurlock examines the language and marketing used to convince us that the food we eat is not as bad for us as it really is, particularly the idea of a ‘health halo’. Clever marketing that takes advantage of the reality that most of us want to feel that we’re doing the right thing, but still eat the unhealthy things we like the taste of is shown to be at the heart of the modern fast food experience. From the decor of the restaurants to the placement of salads on the menus, and the use of non-specific words like ‘natural’, it is all designed to make us comfortable with making the same choices we always have. Because the food itself is not any healthier than it used to be.
Alongside looking at the welfare of the animals and marketing of the food, we are given an unexpected insight into the welfare of the farmers themselves. We are shown an exploitative system led by a small number of giant companies which control the whole supply chain, to the detriment of the farmers. These companies maintain power over chicken farmers by being the ones who supply them with the chickens in the first place and the only people buying them when they are fully grown. They further embed their control over the farmers by demanding expensive upgrades to the farms which leave the farmers in huge debt. Spurlock highlights a lawsuit fought by farmers against one of the big five companies, but years later, in 2019, these exploitative practices continue.
The final portion of the film centres on the opening of his first restaurant. Under the tagline ‘honesty never tasted so good’, Spurlock’s outlet is emblazoned with brutally honest messages. Pictures of their chickens, bald from where their feathers can’t keep up with their growth, a wall dedicated to telling the story of the exploited farmers, ‘food halos’ on every item regardless of whether it is truly healthy. The list goes on. His truthfulness is seemingly welcomed by the customers, who cram into the restaurant, some finding the ‘irony’ amusing, others visibly moved by the plight of the farmers.
But by revealing these ploys and pretenses by offering his own version of them, Spurlock ultimately reveals the most brutal truth at the centre of the fast food industry, the one really driving it forward and which will guarantee its continued success: the consumer doesn’t care. People read the messages but still gleefully tuck into their chicken sandwiches. Who can really blame them? The system has normalised such injustices, and who of us can really say we believe we’re getting a healthy piece of fried chicken just because it’s next to a few lettuce leaves? One of Spurlock’s interviewees insightfully notes that in the face of engaged consumers the industry would be forced to change. But Spurlock’s technique relies on micro-economics. Lots of people making small changes. But we have seen time and time again that this doesn’t work to bring about large-scale change. When every company is doing it, how can we rely on individual actions, individual customers, with few choices and limited resources, to bring about systemic changes? Government intervention and regulation is needed to ensure appropriate oversight. It is a government agency that decides what constitutes a ‘free range’ chicken. It is government which is responsible for anti-monopoly and employment laws that could be used to help secure sustainable practices and prevent exploitation of the farmers. Customers alone will not have the power to do this.
What we might hope is that works like Spurlock’s film act as rallying point for those consumers who are engaged, and give them a base from which to lobby their representatives. But within an intensely capitalist system and in the face of a government perpetually inclined to put corporate American first, they will certainly be facing an up The Hill struggle.
What do you think of Spurlock’s films? Have they changed your relationship with fast food? Share your thoughts in the comments below!