Why CO2 shortage is such a threat to food and drink

A CO2 shortage is causing issues in the supply of food and drink. Credit: PA

The business secretary has said there is no "cause for immediate concern" over the supply of gas in the UK, despite spiralling prices which have already impacted business amid warnings of potential shortages on the shelves.

Producers have warned that supplies of meat, poultry and fizzy drinks could all be hit due to a shortage of carbon dioxide (CO2).

High prices have already caused two large UK fertiliser plants- in Teesside and Cheshire to close- leading to a major drop in supplies of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Now the owner of the UK’s biggest poultry supplier has warned Christmas dinners could be "cancelled" due to the shortages.

Why do we need CO2?

CO2 is plays an essential role in the UK's food and drinks industry.

From putting the fizz in many drinks such as beer, cider and soft drinks, to extending the shelf life of many packed fresh foods such as meat and poultry, CO2 is a vital ingredient on getting products from production to the plate.

The shortage of CO2 is compounding an acute shortage of truck drivers, which has been blamed on the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit.

The gas is pumped into packaging to make them perishable goods last longer - meaning that even lettuce is an unlikely casualty of the crisis - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2018, Warburtons was hit by a shortage of CO2, which lead to the company unable to produce the number of crumpets it usually makes.

Carbon dioxide is also seen as one of the most humane ways to stun animals before slaughter and animal rights campaigners have warned pigs and chickens are likely to suffer if abattoirs run out of the gas.

The gas is also needed to produce dry ice which is needed for transporting perishable goods.

Why is there a shortage in CO2?

Dermot Nolan, a former Ofgem chief executive, has warned that Britain is likely to face high energy prices for the rest of the year.

He said the increases were the result of depleted stocks following a cold winter last winter, reduced supply from Russia, and increased demand for liquefied natural gas from the Far East.

OGUK, which represents the nation’s offshore oil and gas industry, said wholesale prices for gas have surged 250% since January with a 70% rise since August alone.

How long until supply runs out?

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said the country has between five and 15 days of supply left, before British meat disappears from supermarket shelves.

Mr Allen told Sky News: “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.”

He said 80% of pigs and poultry are slaughtered using CO2.

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

Richard Walker told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that suppliers who are looking at some of the stock they hold and their just-in-time chains 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 will a CO2 shortage impact food prices?

The industry has downplayed a hike in food prices as a result of the shortage , but with supply squeezed and production impacted, it seems inevitable that food and drink prices will rise.