Why is there a shortage of CO2 gas in the UK - and how it’s used in food production

Monday, 20th September 2021, 1:17 pm
Rising energy prices have disrupted the production of C02, a gas critical to the production and transport of meat, bread, beer and more (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

CO2 shortages could become a problem in the run-up to Christmas, the managing director of Iceland supermarket has said.

While a bulk buy of the gas might not be top of your Christmas list, a shortage of it would cause a lot of disruption to the supply of more everyday shopping items.

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, has said the country could be two weeks away from British meat disappearing from supermarket shelves.

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But just how does a lack of CO2 affect food production, and what can be done about it?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

What has CO2 got to do with meat production?

Talking on Sky News, Allen said: “The meat industry, in particular the pig and poultry industry, use CO2 for humane slaughter. 80% of pigs and poultry are slaughtered using that process.”

CO2 is a by-product of fertiliser, but a sharp rise in gas prices has meant two large fertiliser plants in Teesside and Cheshire have shut, cutting supply to the food industry.

Wholesale prices for gas have surged 250% since January – with a 70% rise since August alone, leading to calls for support from the industry.

“Those plants closed, and they account for about 60% of the CO2 produced in this country,” said Allen. “They closed at very short notice with no warning. It really hit us cold.

“We’re hoping and praying the Government can negotiate with these plants to reopen. But even then, it’ll take about three days to restart.”

CO2 is not only used for the humane slaughter of livestock, it also extends the shelf-life of products and is vital to cooling systems for refrigeration purposes.

Allen said meat manufacturers have said they have between five and 15 days’ supply left, but then “they will have to stop”.

“That means animals will have to stay on farms. That will cause farmers huge animal welfare problems and British pork and poultry will stay off the shelves. We’re two weeks away from seeing some real impact on the shelves.”

How realistic are food shortages?

(Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

No 10 has insisted the UK food chain is “incredibly resilient” amid warnings of shortages due to a lack of CO2.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “We’ve got a highly resilient food supply chain in the UK, we’ve seen that throughout the pandemic, and we will obviously continue to work with industries that are facing issues to ensure that remains the case.”

But Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland supermarket, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that suppliers who are looking at some of the stock they hold are suggesting this “could become a problem over the coming days and weeks”.

He said: “This is not an issue that is months away, that is for sure. We are building up our stocks on key lines like frozen meat just to make sure we can deal with any unforeseen issue.

“At the moment we are fully stocked and our suppliers are OK, but we do need this sorted as quickly as possible.”

How could it affect Christmas?

Christmas dinners could be “cancelled” due to the shortage of CO2, the owner of the UK’s biggest poultry supplier has said.

Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of Bernard Matthews and 2 Sisters Food Group, said the CO2 shortage, combined with a shortage of workers, will affect the supply of turkeys.

Boparan said: “There are less than 100 days left until Christmas and Bernard Matthews and my other poultry businesses are working harder than ever before to try and recruit people to maintain food supplies.

“The supply of Bernard Matthews turkeys this Christmas was already compromised as I need to find 1,000 extra workers to process supplies. Now with no CO2 supply, Christmas will be cancelled.”

What can be done about it?

Kwasi Kwarteng will update MPs on the situation around gas supply at about 3.30pm on Monday 20 September (Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Government is being urged by meat producers to step in to protect the food supply chain after the cut in the supply of CO2 to the industry.

Ian Wright, the chief executive of the UK Food and Drink Federation, told BBC Radio 4 on Saturday the Government needs to make an “intervention” on gas prices.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said there is no “cause for immediate concern” over the supply of gas in the UK following meetings with industry leaders on Saturday (18 September).

Following further talks on Monday (20 September), Kwarteng will update MPs on the situation around gas supply at about 3.30pm.

A Defra spokesman said: “We are aware of the issues faced by some businesses and are working closely with industry to provide support and advice.

“We have had extensive meetings with representatives from the meat production and processing sectors, and we are continuing those conversations.”

A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, NationalWorld