Christmas dinners could be “cancelled” due to the shortage of carbon dioxide gas (CO2), the owner of the UK’s biggest poultry supplier has warned.
A sharp rise in gas prices has meant two large fertiliser plants in Teesside and Cheshire, which produce CO2 as a by-product, have shut - cutting supply to the food industry.
The Business Secretary stressed there is no "cause for immediate concern" over supply, after he held talks with industry leaders about the issue on Saturday.
But Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of Bernard Matthews and 2 Sisters Food Group, says the issue (combined with a shortage of workers) will hit the supply of turkeys for Christmas.
CO2 is essential to the humane slaughter of livestock, extends the shelf-life of products and is vital to cooling systems for refrigeration purposes, industry leaders have said.
Mr 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.
“Nothing has fundamentally changed since I spoke about this issue in July. In fact, I take no pleasure in pointing out that the gaps on the shelves I warned about then are getting bigger by the day.
“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.
“The CO2 issue is a massive body blow and puts us at breaking point, it really does – that’s poultry, beef, pork, as well as the wider food industry.
“Without CO2, the bottom line is there is less throughput and with our sector already compromised with lack of labour, this potentially tips us over the edge.”
“When poultry cannot be processed it means they must be kept on farms where there are potential implications for animal welfare, so the overall effect is welfare compromised and greatly reduced supply.
"Ready meals lose that vital shelf life. There is potential for massive food waste across the board," Mr Boparan went on to say.
“This is clearly a national security issue and unlike the labour supply crisis, where the government response to our sector has been disappointing to say the least, it has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
“I’d like to see CO2 supplies prioritised for the food sector so UK supply can be maintained and for the government to support these fertiliser plants who are saying they’ve switched off because of the rising price of natural gas.
“It really beggars belief when such a key infrastructure operation can arbitrarily decide to switch off the taps because of price inflation. It is irresponsible and catastrophic for our sector.
“We can’t just down tools because of inflation. In my businesses, you have to roll up your sleeves as best you can and tackle it head-on. Giving up and saying ‘inflation is too high’ is not an option.”
He added: “It’s tough enough having one hand tied behind our backs by simply not having enough people to supply food.
“With the CO2 on top of this, both hands are tied. Government need to act now or we’ll have another cancelled Christmas.”
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.
He went on to say: “Assuming that doesn’t happen, I would have thought that the impacts would be felt probably not by this time next week, but into the week after that.
“And of course, that’s concerning because we’re beginning to get into the pre-Christmas supply period when warehouses begin to pick up, build up their stocks, ready for the push to Christmas a few weeks later.”
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 over the weekend.
“The UK benefits from having access to highly diverse sources of gas supply to ensure households, businesses and heavy industry get the energy they need at a fair price.
“Our exposure to volatile global gas prices underscores the importance of our plan to build a strong, home-grown renewable energy sector to further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.”