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OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Nothing ‘afowl’

by Mike Masterson | June 28, 2022 at 4:35 a.m.

There's been lots of recent comment and conjecture on social media about the large number of fires at meat-processing plants. People have grown increasingly concerned that perhaps facilities are being burned to create a national food shortage,

I mean, at least 18 such fires in less than a year seems suspicious.

But if a "Verify" report from TV station WCNC in Charlotte is accurate, there's nothing sinister behind the rash of fires. Citing sources such as Sam Gazdziak, communications manager for the American Association of Meat Processors; Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute; Tom Super, senior vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council; the USDA; and fire officials in each case, the station found such concerns are unfounded.

Little told the station's "Verify" reporters, "We are not aware of any concerted effort to set food processing facilities on fire."

In an email, Super responded: "I can only speak for chicken, but like any manufacturing plant/industry, there are generally a few fires that occur each year across the country." Most are contained quickly.

Gazdziak agreed. "We've not seen anything ... that points to it being suspicious. A lot of them seem to be mechanical failures, or just, you know, very unfortunate, tragic things that happened. But nothing that was deliberate."

Reporters also dissected statistics from local fire officials: Eleven of the fires were ruled accidental, one was at a vacant former meat plant, and six remained under investigation.

While 18 U.S. fires have been mentioned as occurring in six months, only 12 happened during that time frame and one was in Canada, WCNC noted. Even 18 would amount to a tiny fraction of food-supply facilities across America since the country has some 36,000 food and beverage processing establishments in operation.

Super added: "There are about 200 federally inspected chicken-slaughtering plants in the U.S. and thousands more that further process chicken. And that's just chicken. I would not categorize this as an 'alarming trend.'"

The USDA confirmed there are currently no food shortages or widespread disruptions of the food supply.

Here's what the station's reporters said they discovered about the individual fires:

• April 19, 2022, a fire destroyed the headquarters of Azure Standard, a distributor of organic food in Dufur, Ore. The company said the cause remains under investigation.

• April 13, 2022, a fire destroyed a Taylor Farms Processing Facility in Salinas, Calif. The company's CEO told KSBW-TV that it planned to rebuild and that the fire was likely the result of a welding accident.

• April 12, 2022, the East Conway Fire Department reports a fire destroyed the East Conway Beef & Pork butcher shop and slaughterhouse in Conway, N.H.

• March 24, 2022, a fire destroyed the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant in Belfast, Maine. The Associated Press said it was ruled an accident.

• March 16, 2022, according to KAIT, Channel 8, a fire caused extensive damage to a new production line dedicated to Hot Pockets at a Nestle plant in Jonesboro. Nothing suspicious was noted.

• Feb. 22, 2022, a propane boiler explosion and fire destroyed the Shearer's Foods potato chip plant in northeast Oregon.

• Feb. 15, 2022, a fire destroyed the former home of the Bonanza Meat Co. in El Paso, Texas.

• Feb. 3, 2022 a fire destroyed part of the Wisconsin River Meats site in Mauston, Wis.

• Jan. 13, 2022, according to KALB, an explosion and fire damaged the Cargill-Nutrena plant in Lecompte, La.

• Jan. 6, 2022, a fire extensively damaged a poultry processing plant in Hamilton, Ontario.

• Dec. 13, 2021, a fire broke out at a food processing plant in San Antonio. Firefighters arrived to find a freezer on fire.

• Nov. 29, 2021, a fire erupted at the Maid-Rite Steak Company meat processing plant in Scott Township, Lackawanna County, Pa. The fire has been ruled accidental.

• Sept. 12, 2021, a fire broke out at the JVS USA beef processing plant in Grand Island, Neb. The fire was determined to be from a heater near the roof in the plant's rendering area.

• Aug. 23, 2021, a fire erupted at Patak Meat Products in Cobb County, Ga. In March 2022, the company said it's rebuilding.

• July 31, 2021, a fire broke out at Tyson's River Valley Ingredients rendering plant in Hanceville, Ala.

• July 25, 2021, a fire damaged a Kellogg's plant in Memphis. Fire officials said a malfunctioning conveyor belt sparked a blaze in a rice-drying machine.

• April 30, 2021, a fire broke out at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Monmouth, Ill.

• Jan. 11, 2021, a fire destroyed the Deli Star meat processing plant in Fayetteville, Ill.

So there you have one station's findings, valued readers.

We remain able to pay ever-soaring prices for meat without concern over terrorism or shortages, despite preliminary appearances that something sinister was afowl across the land (sorry).


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


Print Headline: Nothing ‘afowl’

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