FACT FOCUS: Food plant fires fuel conspiracy theory

The fire at a Perdue Farms soybean facility in Virginia on Saturday was relatively small. Firefighters had it under control about an hour after arriving and the plant remains fully operational.

“It was an accidental fire,” said Capt. Steven Bradley, a spokesperson for the Chesapeake Fire Department, attributing it to an equipment malfunction. “Nothing suspicious.”

Try telling that to the internet, where the incident became the latest fodder for an unfounded and growing conspiracy theory alleging that fires at various U.S. food processing plants and other facilities are part of a deliberate effort to undermine the food supply.

The baseless narrative has spread widely as Russia’s war on Ukraine has disrupted the global food supply, driving up prices for commodities such as grains and vegetable oils and threatening food security in some parts of the world.

Here’s a look at the facts.

CLAIM: Suspicious fires at food processing plants in the U.S. are being used to create food shortages.

THE FACTS: Widely shared social media posts in recent weeks have featured lists, maps and headline montages about such fires to suggest a nefarious plot is at play — even though fire officials in many of the cases say the blazes were accidents, not the work of arsonists.

Chatter about food processing plant fires significantly increased in April, compared with March, according to an analysis of social media, traditional media and other channels by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs on behalf of The Associated Press.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson highlighted the theory in an April 21 segment in which his guest, radio host Jason Rantz, called the incidents “obviously suspicious,” adding that “you’ve got some people speculating that this might be an intentional way to disrupt the food supply.”

The segment began with the news of a plane crash near a General Mills facility in Covington, Georgia. A spokesperson for the company told the AP, however, that the plant, which manufactures cereal and snacks, “did not experience any disruptions and it remains fully operational.”

Asked for comment, Fox News pointed to a report on Carlson’s show several days later in which a reporter noted that “we have found no evidence that these incidents are either intentional or connected” but suggested incidents have been more frequent this year than in the past. It’s unclear what criteria the report used when compiling its numbers.

The AP contacted officials in relation to 23 unique events, eight from 2021 and the rest from this year, that were referenced between two lists shared on Facebook and Twitter. Fire officials in nine instances said that the fires were determined or suspected to be accidental. In several others, officials would only say that the fires were still under investigation. In some other cases, local news reports also suggested the incidents were accidents.

On Monday, the National Fire Protection Association pushed back on the rumors in a story in its magazine titled “Nothing to See Here.”

Susan McKelvey, an NFPA spokesperson, noted in an email that national data show the country averaged more than 5,000 fires annually at manufacturing and processing facilities, not just food plants, between 2015 and 2019. She estimated that there have “been approximately 20 fires in U.S. food processing facilities in the first 4 months of 2022, which is not extreme at all and does not signal anything out of the ordinary.”

“The recent inquiries around these fires appears to be a case of people suddenly paying attention to them and being surprised about how often they do occur,” McKelvey said.

Lisa Fazio, an associate professor of psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University, said most Americans wouldn’t know the frequency of such industrial accidents — which “means that it’s relatively easy to create a panic over the issue.”

With actual food shortages caused by the war, “everything they hear gets filtered through that lens and people start noticing things that they hadn’t paid attention to before,” Fazio said in an email.

Food industry experts don’t view the accidents as a crisis for Americans, either.

“There doesn’t appear to be any evidence connecting these fires in any way, and there is absolutely no danger to the US food supply because of a series of unrelated, unfortunate accidents,” Sam Gazdziak, a spokesperson for the American Association of Meat Processors, said in an email.

Those who follow the food supply chain say while such fires can of course have an impact, they are not a major concern domestically or globally.

“The fires were definitely not at the top of my list,” said Phillip Coles, a professor of practice in supply chain management at Lehigh University.

Coles said labor shortages domestically and global issues such as the Russian war in Ukraine, lockdowns in China and shipping costs, are larger factors. He said while consumers in U.S. might not see certain items available, the issue isn’t a shortage of food altogether.

David Ortega, a food economist and associate professor at Michigan State University, said it was “extremely unlikely” that the U.S. would experience food shortages from the Russia-Ukraine war.

While Russia and Ukraine are major grain suppliers, the U.S. produces enough domestically and isn’t dependent on the region, Ortega said. Instead, he said, food shortages from the war would be felt in countries that depend heavily on the region for food imports, such as places in North Africa and the Middle East.

He added: “Beliefs that the U.S. will soon be low on food are simply unfounded.” ___

Associated Press writers Josh Kelety in Phoenix and Ali Swenson in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

___

This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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