The latest conspiracy theory making the rounds among the right-wing Trumpist crowd is a classic combination of fearmongering and scapegoating: A recent rash of fires at food-processing plants across the U.S., the conspiracists claim, signals a concerted attack on the nation’s food supply, abetted by the Biden administration. Unsurprisingly, the torchlight-and-pitchfork brigade is being led by none other than Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.
Carlson has been promoting the theory since late April, but returned to it this week to suggest that the recent deaths of 2,000 cattle in Kansas during a heat wave were part of the pattern. But he’s hardly been alone: The theory is gaining momentum in right-wing social media, thanks to its avid promotion by sites like Gateway Pundit, Infowars, Zero Hedge, and other far-right conspiracy-mongers.
As Mike Rothschild explains at Daily Dot, like many conspiracy theories, this one is a blend of core nuggets of facts woven together with fantastic suppositions. The fires and other incidents (including a couple plane crashes near food facilities that didn’t affect the plants themselves) are all factually real.
In reality, industrial/agricultural fires are quite common in the United States—about 38,000 of them annually, according to the most recent statistics—and the people who monitor them say there has been no noticeable spike. Moreover, there is zero evidence that any one of the incidents was anything other than an ordinary accident.
However, as Rothschild notes, the recent spate of fires attracted people who believed they saw in them a pattern indicating a conspiracy, and began creating lists that went viral on social media. “Google Trends data shows that search traffic for related terms spiked from virtually nothing on April 19 to growing into a huge trend by April 20,” he reports.
That date appears to have been a kind of watershed for the theory’s spread, and may well explain why it attracted Carlson’s interest. Rothschild found that the earliest food-plant post to go truly viral was tweeted early that day by an account for “Dr. Benjamin Braddock” that observed: “Several very large food processing plants in the US have blown up/burned down in the past few days.”
It then began spreading on Telegram, where a post later on April 20 by a user named “Thuletide” acidly observed: “Nothing to see here, just every food processing plant, pantry, and distribution center in America ‘randomly’ catching fire and exploding within the space of a few weeks.” Thuletide’s bio claims the account covers “anti-White hate” and “race realism”—both common white-nationalist tropes.
The post attracted nearly a quarter of a million views on Telegram, and was shared over the next few days major QAnon influencers such as Patrick Byrne, Jovan Pulitzer, QAnon John, and Jordan Sather.
The theory was launched into the mainstream the next night, April 21, by Carlson on his nightly Fox News show. With Seattle talk-radio host Jason Rantz—who had been promoting the theory on his KTTH-AM show—as his guest, Carlson launched into a narrative focusing on a plane crash near a Georgia food facility (which did not actually affect its production at all).
“What’s going on here?” Carlson asked. “The story gets weirder. Food processing plants all over the country seem to be catching fire.” He then listed other incidents as examples: a fire at an Azure Standard food distribution facility, a boiler explosion at a potato chip plant, and an onion packing site in south Texas.
“So industrial accidents happen, of course, but this is a lot of industrial accidents at food processing plants. At the same time the president is warning us of food shortages. They’re getting hit by planes and catching on fire. What is going on here?”
Rantz then made the case that a conspiracy might be afoot:
Accidents happen. But when you’ve got well over a dozen processing plants and warehouses getting destroyed or seriously damaged in just the last few weeks, when the food supply is already vulnerable, it’s obviously suspicious. It could lead to some serious food shortages. That’s why people are wondering, well, number one, what’s going on? And you’ve got people speculating that this might be an intentional way to disrupt the food supply.
Rantz acknowledged that all the incidents had ordinary explanations, but that the rash of such incidents raised red flags: “To be clear, the timing is very suspicious. It’s obviously concerning,” he said, then acknowledged: “Police are saying that these fires are due to faulty issues with equipment, so they’re not saying this was intentional. Either way, it’s going to have some significant implications in us getting our food.”
Carlson thought that the fact that the Georgia incident had occurred just before his program wasn’t coincidental: “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.”
Two days later, Carlson told his audience for his Tucker Carlson Today program streaming on Fox Nation:
Dozens of food processing plants all over the country have been disabled. Maybe it’s totally normal, maybe it’s not, we don’t know. Some of them have caught fire, some have been hit by planes. We have no idea why this is happening. But what you need to know is that it highlights the vulnerability of our food supply, and it is vulnerable for a lot of reasons, not just plane crashes and fires.
And then on Thursday, he returned to the subject in the context of the Kansas cattle dieoff:
If your country has problems with its food supply, your country has real problems. We do. No one in the administration seems even to notice because it has nothing to do with trans rights. But a lot of very strange things have happened lately. Food processing plants have caught fire, one was hit by a plane, at numbers that seem unlikely in nature. Now more than 10,000 cattle have died in Kansas somehow.
He brought on reporter Matt Finn, on the scene in Kansas, who explained that the unanimous view of ranchers and veterinarians was that the 100-plus-degree heat wave in the state was responsible. He interviewed one rancher who explained that the cattle were unable to cool down enough at night—but still ended his report on a conspiratorial note.
“Now, that farmer says there are theories out there about the cattle being poisoned, and he said that every possibility should be investigated,” Finn said.
Added Carlson: “This of course taking place in the wake of a massive poultry killoff that wasn’t reported in many places, but it was huge.”
As with all the cases on the conspiracists’ lists, that one too had a perfectly ordinary explanation: The 37 million animals who have died this year on poultry farms are the victims of an outbreak of avian flu; it’s the worst outbreak recorded in the U.S., but it is caused by the virus spreading from wild populations to domesticated pens. There was a similar outbreak in 2015.
Carlson’s promotion of the theory, as Rothschild notes, made the subject go wildly viral on social media, particularly within mainstream right-wing media. But he’s only been the most visible source of its spread.
Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk recently joined the fearmongering on Twitter:
Our food supply is under attack in America. The question is—by who?
Right-wing gadfly Tim Pool also has been joining in on his popular YouTube show and podcast, featuring stories with such headlines as: “Strange Trend of Food Processing Plant Fires Appears Across the US”.
Alex Jones’ Infowars conspiracy mill has been churning out the paranoia, as well, with discussions titled: “Food Shortage Crisis? Dozens of food processing-plants destroyed in fires and accidents in recent weeks,” and “FBI warns of targeted cyber-attacks on food plants after mysterious rash of fires.”
Conspiracist Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, of course, jumped in on the action too. She appeared on Infowars with Jones claiming that Democrats are intentionally starting the fires so they can deprive the nation of food, which she argued would be advantageous for them: “The Biden administration and the Democrats … are destroying the very important, most critical part of the fabric of America, and that is our farmers,” Greene said. “They’re doing it on purpose. They want to be the global economy. They want to be completely involved. And here we have these ‘random,’ supposedly accidental fires at food processing plants.”
Possibly the most prolific has been Jim Hoft of the Gateway Pundit, who has been running food-supply fearmongering stories almost daily for the past month. He also cobbled together a list of all the “suspicious” recent incidents—some 97 of them so far—describing them as “Food Manufacturing Plants Destroyed Under Biden Administration.”
The theory, of course, has been thoroughly debunked and discredited. Snopes examined the theory and found it utterly groundless:
Almost all of the fires on meme lists involved explainable causes, and we found no examples of suspected arson. One of the included examples involved an abandoned building, while another involved a butcher shop (not a large food processing facility). Most importantly, this “trend” is not new. When we searched for news stories about fires at food processing plants in 2021, 2020, and 2019, we found that such fires are relatively commonplace, and that there has not been any conspiracy-worthy upticks.
U.S. News thoroughly examined each of the incidents cited by Carlson and the others, and found each of them had ordinary explanations. FactCheck.org came up with identical results, and noted that many of the reports exaggerated the factual circumstances, particularly the plane-crash incidents, neither of which involved the planes actually damaging the facilities seriously.
A spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Association, which tracks industrial fires, told FactCheck.org that national data show 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,” she told FactCheck.org.
Combustible dust research group Dust Safety Science reported there were 163 dust fires and 53 dust explosions at US facilities in 2021 alone
Similarly, food-supply experts see no reason to be concerned about the food-supply chain in the United States, where there is consensus view that there are no looming food shortages here for the foreseeable future—though the war in Ukraine will obviously affect that issue elsewhere in the world.
As for the Biden administration’s supposed inaction, it seems to have escaped the notice of Carlson and his anti-Biden cohorts that, in fact, the administration announced a framework for shoring up the nation’s food-supply chain at the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month.
What’s driving the conspiracy theory, it seems—beyond right-wingers’ eagerness to find any kind of stick with which to beat the Biden administration—is the tendency among conspiracists to see patterns where they do not exist, particularly among random and otherwise perfectly explicable events and phenomena.
The same tendency is at work in conspiracy theories like the “chemtrails” mythology, which claims that nefarious government elements are spreading chemicals that sicken the population and affect the weather through the ordinary jetstreams that appear behind airline traffic in the sky: When people begin making connections between otherwise random and unrelated phenomena, it helps them form a narrative to fit their preconceived view of the world as a hostile place out to harm and suppress them.
Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor in social psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands and author of Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, calls this tendency “illusory pattern perception”: “It's about making connections in your mind that puts random stimuli together. That's what pattern perception is all about,” she told the BBC.
She says “negative emotions” trigger people to start looking for connections that may not be there. “Our brains' natural tendency to seek patterns gets amplified when we are fearful and feel like we don't have control over situations,” she said. “We might start to see illusory patterns or connections that aren't there. So it makes sense for conspiracy theories to pop up when these major, fear-eliciting events like a terrorist attack or a natural disaster happens.”
Van Prooijen explains that everyone engages in making such connections, but that conspiracism-prone personalities are often unable to distinguish between patterns that are real and those that are illusory.
“It's true that many of these conspiracy theorists are actually quite analytical,” she added. “But I do think that they actually start with an emotion, with a sense that something must be wrong. They then start rationalizing it and looking for evidence to support that emotion.”