An ongoing hortage of carbon dioxide could cause havoc to the pig and poultry supply chain, meat processors have warned.
Food grade carbon dioxide is a by-product of the fertiliser industry – but rocketing gas prices have seen two of the UK’s biggest fertiliser plants suspend operations indefinitely because production is no longer commercially viable.
The British Meat Processors Association said an impending shortage of carbon dioxide could cause massive disruption to food supplies by the start of October. The gas had a vital role in the food and drink manufacturing process, it warned.
Carbon dioxide is used in the slaughter process, packaging, and chilling stages of poultry meat production. If any of those stages is slowed or interrupted then so is the food supply – with potentially disastrous results.
The BMPA said some companies would have to stop taking animals and close production lines, leading to a backlog of animals on farms. The pig industry was already facing the imminent prospect of a humane cull on farms, it said.
Beef and lamb could continue to be processed – but up to five days shelf life would be lost without carbon dioxide in the vacuum packing process. This could pose an additional problem for retailers already grappling with a lack of HGV drivers.
BMPA chief executive Nick Allen said: “This crisis highlights the fact that the British food supply chain is at the mercy of a small number of major fertiliser producers – four or five companies – spread across northern Europe.
“We rely on a by-product from their production process to keep Britain’s food chain moving.”
The food and drink industry was reliant on affordable energy and commodity prices. If one of these was thrown out of balance, fertiliser factories either slowed production or – worse still – completely mothballed plants.
“While this is not a significant problem for the fertiliser manufacturers, it is of much more strategic importance to the country’s food security. And, it is this structural vulnerability that BMPA is seeking to address with government.”
Mr Allen said the carbon dioxide market was so opaque it was hard to know how much gas was available at any one time. “Worryingly, we now understand that multiple plants in Europe, where we would have turned to for emergency supplies, are also to be closed.”
The strategic nature of the problem required a strategic response from government. Just as the water industry was regulated to avoid public crises, the government should intervene to prevent a carbon dioxide shortage from happening again.