A new conspiracy theory on the right—that a marauding band of arsonists and kamikaze pilots have been sabotaging the national food supply—has captivated Donald Trump supporters with the help of a big name: Tucker Carlson.
The theory has no basis in fact. Last week, an image began circulating on Facebook showing local news headlines about fires and other accidents at American food processing plants that produce everything from Hot Pockets to potatoes. The implication was that something was afoot with the food supply, even if the conspiracy theory’s proponents themselves couldn’t explain what it was. The image spread to Telegram, the social media messaging app that's become popular on the American right, with conservative figures like Jan. 6 rally organizer Ali Alexander reposting it.
But despite a total lack of evidence that anything out of the ordinary is going on, that didn’t stop Carlson from running a Fox News segment on the debunked supposition.
“Industrial accidents happen, of course, but this is a lot of industrial accidents at food processing facilities,” Carlson said during an April 21 segment on his primetime show.
Carlson opened the segment by suggesting that a sinister plot was at play, even if no one could explain what it was. He then kicked it to his guest, Seattle talk radio host Jason Rantz, who called the timing of recent fires “very suspicious.”
“You’ve got some people speculating this may be an intentional way to disrupt the food supply,” Rantz said.
Despite what Carlson, Rantz, and an anonymous image posted on Facebook say, there’s no evidence of an unusual amount of fires at American food-processing plants. A Snopes review found similar numbers of fires in earlier years. And while Carlson pointed to roughly a dozen fires as proof of a conspiracy theory, a 2017 Census report found that the United States has 37,000 food processing plants—suggesting that a dozen fires wouldn’t significantly hurt the food supply.
Right-wing blogs promoting the plot have also used an expansive definition of “recent.” In the widely circulated Facebook image, for example, the first headline about a fire cited in the meme came from January 2021, more than a year ago. A post on right-wing commentator Tim Pool’s blog about the fires cited a Tysons Meat fire as far back as 2019 as evidence of a suspicious sabotage campaign.
This new brand of conspiracy theorist doesn’t just suspect a nationwide arson gang, though. They’ve also seized on two recent plane crashes at food processing plants, at an Idaho potato plant and a General Mills plant in Georgia.
Neither of those cases suggests a plot to deliberately crash planes. In the Idaho accident, a UPS pilot crashed into a factory chimney that her father claimed was positioned too close to the approach to the runway where she was trying to land. In Georgia, the plane crashed into a group of mostly empty tractor trailers in a remote part of the plant. Neither incident appears to have been targeted at a linchpin of the food supply.
Still, Carlson had questions.
“What's going on here?” he asked on his show about the plane crashes.
Even the arson theory’s proponents have struggled to explain the motivation behind launching an elaborate attack on food processing plants. There are often vague insinuations that Joe Biden’s administration is behind the “attacks,” or that the fires are to blame for rising food prices. But it’s rarely explained why Biden would want to induce a famine ahead of the midterms by, for example, sabotaging a Hot Pockets facility.
All the same, right-wing personalities have theories. On the far-right personality Stew Peters’ show, one pundit claimed nefarious forces—bent on causing a repeat of the Ukrainian Holodomor famine—were behind the industrial accidents.
Even Carlson, the conspiracy theory’s most prominent proponent, struggled to figure out whether the number of fires was even notable.
“What are the odds of that?” Carlson said. “I have no idea.”