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Unfounded Claims About Frequency and Causes of Food Plant Fires

Quick Take

Data on the number fires at food-processing plants in 2022 “does not signal anything out of the ordinary,” according to the National Fire Protection Association. Despite no evidence of foul play, unfounded rumors from conservative pundits suggest a rash of “mysterious fires” may be part of a plan to disrupt the food supply.

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There’s been no significant increase in fires at food production facilities so far in 2022, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

But that fact hasn’t stopped rumors from swirling online claiming that there’s been a suspicious increase and suggesting that there may be a plan to disrupt the food supply.

Data on fire incidents doesn’t support the claim.

“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,” NFPA spokeswoman Susan McKelvey told us. “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. But NFPA does not see anything out of the ordinary in these numbers.”

The NFPA gets its data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System and its own data sets, neither of which provide numbers specific to food processing plants. But the data does provide annual averages on fires that could be related to those types of facilities, McKelvey said.

For example, she said, the annual averages of fires that have occurred in the U.S. between 2015 and 2019 are as follows:

All manufacturing and processing facilities: 5,308
Agriculture: 961
Grain or livestock storage: 1,155
Refrigerated storage: 35

In 2020, there were 490,500 structure fires in the U.S. The 5,308 fires occurring in all manufacturing and processing plants, as noted above, represents 1% of all U.S. structure fires. Fires that represent less than 2% of the overall fire problem are considered statistically insignificant, McKelvey said. “As a result, the number of fires for this occupancy classification fall within that category,” she said.

Overall, McKelvey said, “fires happen more often than people think.”

There may be more food processing plants than people think, too. The U.S. had a total of 36,486 plants as of 2017, the most recent year for which there was data from the Census Bureau, according to a post from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But partisan websites and social media accounts have pointed to some examples of recent fires and paired them with other real-world events that are related to agriculture. Although the events have nothing to do with the fires, the posts give the misleading suggestion that there’s something nefarious afoot.

For example, a website called Headline USA posted a story that said, “FBI Warns of Attacks on Food Plants After Rash of Mysterious Fires.” It referenced an April 20 notice from the FBI that warned agricultural cooperatives about potential ransomware attacks, which are a type of cyber threat in which a company’s computer files can be frozen and, as the name suggests, held for ransom.

The FBI highlighted some instances, such as a ransomware attack in the fall of 2021 that affected six grain cooperatives and led some to halt their production while others lost access to administrative functions.

Another version of this conspiratorial claim relies on a frequent villain in such theories — billionaire Bill Gates. One example of this claim came from Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers — a Republican who was censured after she called for her political rivals to be hanged at an event organized by a white nationalist.

Rogers posted a tweet that said, “Bill Gates bought LOTS of farmland. Ukraine happened. Now food processing plants are catching fire. What is going on? Who knew what and when? Kinda shady!” That tweet has migrated to Facebook as a screenshot meme.

It’s true that Gates has bought farmland. In 2021, The Land Report found that he was the largest private owner of farmland in the U.S., with 242,000 acres. There are 895.3 million acres of farmland across the country, according to the U.S.D.A.’s 2021 summary of farms. But there’s nothing to suggest anything “shady” is going on simply because Gates owns a fraction of U.S. farmland and there are sometimes fires at agricultural or food-processing facilities.

One of the most widely shared versions of the claim about the fires came from Tucker Carlson, who highlighted the rumors on the April 21 episode of his Fox News show, which has an average of 3.62 million nightly viewers according to the most recent Neilson ratings

“Food processing plants all over the country seem to be catching fire,” Carlson said at the start of the segment. He featured conservative talk-radio host Jason Rantz as an expert, who said that there had been “well over a dozen” examples of this within “the last few weeks.” But the show included a total of nine examples since January 2021.

“It’s obviously suspicious and it could lead to serious food shortages,” Rantz said, although he didn’t explain what, exactly, he suspects is going on.

Rantz did not respond to an email seeking clarification.

Carlson wrapped up the interview, saying, “An hour ago a plane crashes into a General Mills facility. We’d already planned this segment. I’m sorry, the onus is on people who think that’s a conspiracy theory to explain what is going on, what are the odds of that? I have no idea.”

We don’t know what the odds are of a plane crashing into a General Mills facility shortly before Carlson went on the air either. But we’ll explain what we do know about the evidence for the claim that there has been a suspicious increase in fires at food processing plants using the examples given on Carlson’s show, since that’s the most high-profile version of the claim.

To start with, a plane didn’t crash into a General Mills building. Rather, as described by a local Fox News affiliate that covered the Covington, Georgia accident, “the plane went down in a remote section of the plant’s property where empty trailers are stored about 300 feet away from the building itself.”

The plane was a twin-engine Cessna 340 flown by a pilot in training, police told a local newspaper.

A General Mills spokeswoman confirmed to us that the crash hasn’t impacted food production or distribution, saying in an email, “On April 21, a small plane crashed near the General Mills Covington, GA cereal and snack manufacturing facility. No employees were harmed, the plant did not experience any disruptions and it remains fully operational.”

We’ll go through the rest of the examples in the order they were mentioned in the show:

  • Gem State Processing in Heyburn, Idaho. April 13. A single-engine plane hit the chimney of the Gem State potato processing plant at about 8:30 in the morning.

The pilot died, and she was the only person on board. None of Gem State’s employees were injured, according to local police.

Gem State Processing is one of 12 brands owned by Oregon Potato Company, which declined to comment. But a person who answered the phone at the facility said it was operating as usual.

  • Azure Standard in Dufur, Oregon. April 18. A fire “related to a tote of rolled corn” destroyed the headquarters of a natural food company, according to a statement on the company’s Instagram page quoting the fire marshal. The investigation determined the fire was not an act of arson.

In an earlier statement, the company’s CEO had said that other facilities were operating “as close to normal as possible” and only carob and liquid products — such as “Azure Market oils,” honey and vinegar — would be impacted since the fruit harvest season hadn’t yet started. He said that the company had located a new facility and expected to be up and running within a week.

  • Rio Fresh in San Juan, Texas. March 31. A fire burned the onion packing facility at a family-owned farm in south Texas, according to an announcement on the farm’s Facebook page.

We called to see how production had been impacted, and Darren Hernandez, who works in accounting, picked up the phone. “It did hit us pretty hard,” he said, but Rio Fresh has leased other warehouse space and has been able to process and distribute its produce as usual. The family is planning to rebuild, he said.

  • Shearer’s Foods plant in Hermiston, Oregon. Feb. 22. A portable, natural gas-powered boiler exploded and caused a fire at a Shearer’s Foods potato chip plant in eastern Oregon, according to the local sheriff’s office.

It was one of 12 plants the company operated across the country. Shearer’s Foods is deciding whether or not to rebuild, according to a statement.

  • Taylor Farms in Salinas, California. April 13. A fire at a processing facility that had been closed for the winter and was in the process of opening may have been started by a spark from a welding project, but the cause is still under investigation, according to the local fire chief.

The Salinas plant is one of 13 facilities operated by Taylor Farms.

The company said in a statement to a local newspaper, “Over the next few days and weeks, Taylor Farms will be utilizing all of our North American capacity to continue to support our partners with assured supply. Our total production locations and geographic diversity is our best defense to this scenario. We will work to reassign and support our Salinas foodservice production team this season as we rebuild the facility.”

  • Penobscot McCrum LLC in Belfast, Maine. March 24. A potato processing facility burned due to mechanical error or “spontaneous combustion” of leftover food, according to a local news report. None of the employees at the family-owned company were hurt, according to a statement on the Penobscot McCrum’s Facebook page.

“The frozen potato market is a very large market,” Jay McCrum, managing partner of the company, said in a phone interview with FactCheck.org. He called his family’s facility “insignificant” in terms of the impact its closure would have on the national market. But, he said, they also have other facilities that have picked up some of the production and they’re weighing their options for the future.

  • Washington Potato Company in Warden, Washington. Jan. 21, 2021. A fire that likely started in a potato dehydrating drum destroyed the facility, according to a local news report.

About two weeks after the fire, the company filed a notice with the Washington State Employment Security Department announcing it would permanently lay off 62 workers.

Washington Potato Company is one of 12 brands owned by Oregon Potato Company, which declined to comment.

  • Nestlé facility in Jonesboro, Arkansas. March 16. A fire broke out at a Nestlé factory and, although the company didn’t respond to multiple calls and emails seeking more information, news reports indicate that the facility closed, at least in part, following the fire. The city of Jonesboro posted a message on Facebook saying, “We stand ready to assist Nestlé with their needs during the rebuilding process and look forward to seeing this pillar of our community back in full operation soon.”

According to a March 9 release from Nestlé announcing the creation of a new beverage factory in Arizona, the company currently has 14 food and beverage factories across the U.S.

So, the number of fires hasn’t been out of the ordinary. And of the fires that have happened, there’s been no indication of foul play.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.


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