Is America’s food industry being sabotaged? Consumers got a sense that our food-supply chains might be fragile when Covid-19 outbreaks shut down several meatpacking plants in the spring of 2020. Supermarket meat coolers were thinly stocked for weeks. In 2021, some observers began noticing a seeming uptick in fires and other disruptions at food-production facilities around the country. Soon lists of “suspicious” fires at food plants began circulating on Facebook and Twitter. Our “food supply is under attack,” a typical tweet proclaimed.
By the spring of 2022, the lists of fires and other incidents had grown to include more than 90 events: fires damaged meatpacking plants in Georgia, Illinois, and other states; millions of chickens and turkeys were destroyed at dozens of farms; within a single week, airplanes crashed into two food-production facilities; and so on. Gateway Pundit, ZeroHedge, and other conspiracy-curious sites published stories on the trend. Soon Tucker Carlson was on the case. “What’s going on here?” the TV host asked. “Food processing plants all over the country seem to be catching on fire.”
A few days later, a Tucker Carlson Tonight reporter noted, “we have found no evidence that these incidents are either intentional or connected.” But the fuse was already lit. The meme continued to spread, notwithstanding investigations by the Associated Press, Reuters, and various self-described fact-checking organizations, including Snopes and Politifact. The fires had non-nefarious explanations, they concluded; and the nation’s food supply remains uncompromised. Still, for many observers, the fact that nearly 100 food-producing businesses had been affected seemed too suspicious to ignore.
On the Gateway Pundit site, a commenter using the handle Tempus Fugit asked a pertinent question: “The only missing fact in this story is, are these incidents above the norm?” That question—What is the baseline?—is one that news reporters routinely overlook. In fact, the human brain isn’t particularly good at sorting meaningful patterns from spurious ones. If anything, we are cognitively prone to see spooky patterns where none exist. The perceived food-disruption epidemic is an example of what psychologists call the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon” or the “frequency illusion.” Did you ever learn a new word, or the name of some historical person, and then suddenly start hearing that word or name everywhere? Those words or names have been around all along, but once you start noticing them, they seem to pop up with an uncanny frequency. (Why is this mental quirk named after a group of 1970s German terrorists? Answer here.)
The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a cognitive bias that works on an individual level. But perceived trends like the food-fire epidemic are amplified by a related bias that operates across society. It happens when news organizations and other groups devote extra attention to incidents that seem to fit a meaningful pattern. I call this the “freeway shooter syndrome.” Back in 1987, L.A. highways saw a spate of unexplained shootings. Several were actual cases of random gunfire between cars. But once the news media labelled the shootings a “murderous epidemic,” every incident involving cars and guns began making the nightly news, often receiving national coverage. Most of those cases weren’t random shootings: some were gang conflicts; some were carjackings or other common crimes; and some didn’t even happen on freeways. Normally, such incidents would have been minor local stories at most—until they fit a “pattern” that was largely the product of selection bias and media amplification.
Something similar happened in the 1990s when the media focused on an alleged wave of arson attacks on Southern black churches. That claim originated with a progressive group called the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), which attributed the church fires to “a well-organized white-supremacist movement.” President Bill Clinton condemned the “epidemic of hatred,” and Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996. As usual, the media didn’t want to ruin a good story by asking that vital question: What’s the baseline? If they had, they would have learned that churches in remote areas—including mostly white churches—had long been prone to fires. Some cases were due to arson, and a few of those, sadly, were probably racially motivated. But there was no new epidemic of fires; in fact, the rate of church arson cases had fallen dramatically since the early 1980s. Reporting for the Wall Street Journal, Michael Fumento found that many of the claimed arson attacks on the CDR list were dubious at best. A large number of the cases had already been ruled accidental; in quite a few others, the arson suspects were themselves black. And several of the churches on the list had never burned at all.
There’s an old saying among journalists that some stories are “too good to check.” It’s supposed to be a joke. But all too often, when a story supports a media organization’s underlying biases, that motto remains operative. Despite the absence of confirming evidence, the media-boosted “epidemics” of 1980s freeway shootings and 1990s church fires continue to be credulously referenced in news articles to this day.
So far, claims about a supposed epidemic of food fires are mostly circulating on the conspiracy-inclined right. So, rather than amplifying the claims, liberal-leaning media outlets are applying unaccustomed rigor in debunking them. These efforts will probably do little to persuade adherents to the paranoid view. Journalistic fact-checking sites such as Snopes and Politifact have squandered their credibility in recent years by indulging in nakedly partisan smackdowns of politically inconvenient stories. And some of the groups trying to set the record straight on the food fires aren’t doing themselves any favors. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) does crucial research on fire prevention. But its media team could use some advice on how to talk to a skittish, skeptical public. The group published an excellent article attempting to put food-fire fears to rest under the unfortunate headline “Nothing to See Here.”
Nonetheless, the reporting on this topic from Politifact, Reuters, and other outlets is solid and persuasive. And liberal sources aren’t alone in debunking the idea that shadowy forces are torching our food supply: conservative outlets Not the Bee and National Review have also punched holes in the claim.
First, there’s the baseline problem: a list of nearly 100 incidents disrupting food supplies certainly seems like a worrisome trend. But what’s the context? More than 2 million farms operate in this country, and about 35,000 food and beverage processing centers. The NFPA doesn’t specifically track fires at food-processing plants. But it does report that roughly 5,000 fires occur every year at all types of manufacturing and processing facilities combined—nearly 15 per day. In addition, the group says, in 2019, “more than 2,000 fires occurred in agricultural, grain and livestock, and refrigerated storage facilities.” At this rate, perhaps we should be surprised there aren’t more incidents included on the lists of supposedly suspicious events.
Experts also stress that farms and food facilities are fire-prone environments. Agriculture is a notoriously dangerous pursuit, involving heavy equipment, explosive fuels and chemicals, and huge quantities of straw, grains, and other flammable products. (Just Google “barn fire.”) Food processing involves additional risks. “Food is fuel,” notes NFPA research director Birgitte Messerschmidt. These facilities process sugar, flour, fats, oils, and other flammable ingredients using ovens and similar heat sources.
Counterintuitive as it might seem, some of America’s worst industrial accidents have involved food production. For example, a 2008 dust explosion at a Georgia sugar refinery killed 13 workers and injured dozens more. Several of the fires circulating on lists of supposedly suspicious incidents fall under this heading: a Maine potato-processing plant burned down after a fire started in a deep-fryer; a broken conveyor belt at a Memphis Kellogg’s facility “sparked a blaze in a rice drying machine“; “grease and animal byproducts” were the culprit in a 2021 fire at an Alabama animal-feed factory.
In many cases, fires were related to construction, welding mishaps, a malfunctioning heater, and other quotidian problems. In other words, these were typical industrial accidents. Among the incidents commonly circulated on lists of suspicious fires, I couldn’t find any in which authorities said they believed the cause was arson.
And some of the events included on these lists are just obvious stretches. “Fire destroys East Conway Beef & Pork Meat Market in Conway, New Hampshire,” reads one item. No doubt, the loss of a small-town butcher shop is a local tragedy. But it is hard to see it as a national emergency. The same goes for the plane crash at a Georgia General Mills plant, which Carlson mentioned in his roundup. If pilots were making kamikaze attacks on food plants, that would be frightening indeed. News that a student pilot and his instructor actually crashed 300 yards from a food facility is sad, but hardly ominous. In that case, and in many others on these lists, operations at the plant continued uninterrupted. And the plants that have been damaged aren’t critical linchpins in our food economy. As NRO’s Jim Geraghty notes, “If you were a terrorist or foreign agent attempting to choke off the American food-distribution network . . . would you start with an obscure potato-chip maker in Oregon? Then move on to the source of Hot Pockets in Arkansas?”
As for the millions of chickens and turkeys destroyed in recent months, that is a real problem. Bird flu has been an occasional threat to poultry farmers for years. When the virus hits a particular egg or poultry farm, the only solution is to kill off the whole flock. A Eurasian strain of the disease began circulating overseas in 2021 and reached U.S. shores in January. Farmers across the country have been forced to cull their flocks, driving up the price of eggs and other products. The disease is also affecting wild birds. If this is a conspiracy, it’s one worthy of a James Bond villain.
So does all this mean that we should relax and not worry about our food supply? Not entirely. In fact, a global crisis in food supplies is growing. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of grain and vegetable oils. Russia’s invasion has largely choked off that country’s food exports. Then there is the global energy crisis. Russia’s invasion plays a part in that, too, but unrealistic green-energy policies in Europe—and the Biden administration’s hostility to U.S. energy production—are worsening energy shortages. From field to table, every part of the food economy depends on affordable energy. With energy prices soaring, food production and distribution will suffer. Even fertilizer is in short supply. Compared to most countries, the U.S. is well positioned to ride out a global food shortage. But the coming months will stress supply chains and drive food prices to heights most living Americans have never seen. The policy failures that have put us in this position are not shadowy conspiracies. They’re a matter of public record.
James B. Meigs is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, cohost of the How Do We Fix It? podcast, and the former editor of Popular Mechanics.
Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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