According to the USDA, poultry consumption continues to climb and is the most-consumed meat in the nation. But where does it come from? Larger-scale chicken farmers work hard to produce the nutritious and delicious meals for our drive-thrus, grocers, and restaurants, but the way they’re raised “broils” down to some pretty solid science! Learn more about the process here, from the Poultry Science department of Auburn University.
“The best food and chicken companies have a story!” Dave Thomas, Ronald McDonald? Recently I watched the movie “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!,” and I was curious to know if the quotes and claims in the film were true. The premise of the film is a fight against the “big chicken”
industry, during which the main character decides he wants to raise his own chickens and open a restaurant. He goes on a quest to dive into the production, sales, and marketing on how to do this.
I knew right off the bat a lot of the facts they shared about marketing, buzzwords, and false “health halos” for sales were correct. Many food labels, such as organic, natural, non-GMO, gluten-free, no added hormones, free range, green, artisan, antibiotic-free, are indeed quite misleading or simply misunderstood by consumers. But I felt other parts of the film were overdramatized.
After speaking with a couple of farmers from the “big chicken” companies, it turns out that my assumptions were correct. As one example, Jackie Lohr and her husband have been raising commercial broilers for Pilgrims Pride for 22 years and shared some of my frustration. In the movie, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (recently caught up in an alcoholism and rape scandal) decides he wants to grow his own chickens, so he apparently rents a chicken house from an Alabama farmer. This is red flag No. 1. In real life, no commercial broiler farm could rent out a house. They’re contracted by companies and cannot mix other breeds, flocks, etc. “I can’t even have a pet parakeet!” exclaims Jackie.
This shows right off the bat that this particular farmer may have already been a bit of a troublemaker.
When the chicks arrive to the farm in the movie, it looks bad when they’re just “thrown” into the barns. The farmer says that it stimulates them. Upon fact checking, this is also not true and chicks are gently unloaded, bending over to be careful with them. Chicken legs are hollow, and they can be quite fragile. Farmers know this and work to be as careful as they can; It’s their business and livelihood after all.
Speaking of legs, the health dramatizations in the film were also over the top. You may have heard that sometimes chickens get so heavy their legs break? Or they die of heart attacks? On extremely rare instances, this can happen, but the movie made it sound like this is commonplace, when it’s not. These are two problems that have largely been avoided due to improvements in comfort, technology, and feed efficiency. Approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of birds in poultry houses die before they reach market weight, which is quite good by industry standards. Chickens are “prey” animals, so they do a good job covering it up if they’re sick. Sometimes you just don’t know they’re not well until it’s too late, but it’s part of the process.
Medicine is another common misperception. A vast majority of livestock are raised with no antibiotics, ever. Not only do FDA regulations outlaw most medications nowadays (or require a vet prescription), but oftentimes they’re just not needed. Biosecurity on large scale farms has helped greatly. Of course, antibiotics have their place if an animal is sick, but when you chat with farmers, you quickly learn it’s rare they use them (if at all.) Also, hormones or steroids are never used in the poultry industry — which is another thing that runs contrary to the public’s impressions and can be misleading based on food labels.
In “Super Size Me 2,” which was released in the U.S. in 2019, Spurlock goes on to the National Chicken Council and pretty much sweet talks his way past security to try to talk to them unannounced with no appointment. Shocked, the Chicken Council tells him he can’t take pictures and are suspicious of his actions. Can’t really blame them. This isn’t because they have anything to hide but rather because the animal agriculture industry has to be very careful who they talk to because vegan animal-rights activists often skew the facts for their agenda. The Chicken Council is protecting their security.
When I think of activist groups and their agenda, I am left wondering what Spurlock’s agenda is. The film grossed over $11 million in sales so far, and I’m wondering who funded it and why. One minute he’s sharing real, unbiased facts, but the next, he’s so off base that it makes me wonder why he wants chicken farming to be painted in a worse way than it actually is. And how does he manage to get on so many major programs like TMZ and ABC?
There are numerous films out there (disguised as “documentaries”) that don’t share the full, truthful story of agriculture. If you want the real facts, remember that there’s two sides to every story, and sometimes movies are more fiction than fact. We call them “SHOCKumentaries,” and here’s a good explanation how you can avoid them and know when you’re being “fed” truthful information.
The world of poultry production is competitive, it’s true. Chicken farmers are paid per pound on the “tournament system,” and the relationship between the farmer and company (known as an “integrator”) is based on trust. In the film, the farmer wonders why he isn’t getting paid better when his chickens are the biggest. But what he doesn’t explain is how it took him a longer time and a lot more feed to bring that bird to market weight, so he wasn’t the top producer in his region. Something he didn’t mention. He then goes on to explain how the corporations want chicken farmers constantly in debt to have control over them. It’s a bit of a “victim card” mentality.
Could farmers be paid better? Probably. But like any business, you get out what you put in. Equipment, housing, technology … they all need upgrades. Overall, “Super Size Me 2” wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it still missed the mark on many areas and overdramatized numerous scenarios in an unfair way. Stay tuned for next week as I share what chicken farming is actually like, with thoughts and facts straight from the real successful chicken farmers themselves.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.