CO2: will there be another carbon dioxide gas shortage in the UK - and how it could impact food supplies

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CO2 is a gas used in the slaughter of animals, but the UK could see more shortages as a Government deal expires

Britain could face another round of CO2 shortages unless a new deal is struck to secure 60% of the UK’s supply, the food and drink industry has warned.

A shortage developed in September 2021 after production was paused at two fertiliser factories in northern England, which supply 60% of Britain’s CO2.

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But a three-month deal saw the factories reopen and supplies return to normal days later; that three-month deal ends today (31 January).

So what can we expect? Here is everything you need to know about it.

Why is there a CO2 shortage?

(Image: JPIMedia/NationalWorld)(Image: JPIMedia/NationalWorld)
(Image: JPIMedia/NationalWorld) | JPIMedia/NationalWorld

CO2 is used across numerous industries, including stunning animals for humane slaughter, extending the shelf life of food, making drinks fizzy, aiding in surgical operations and cooling nuclear power plants.

In September 2021, a shortage was caused by the shutting down of two large fertiliser plants in Teesside and Cheshire – which produce CO2 as a by-product – with US firm CF Industries, which owns the factories, citing a hike in gas prices as their reason for closing.

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A Food and Drink Federation spokesperson has since said: “The security of food-grade CO2 supplies in the UK has been a concern for our industry for some time.

“Last year’s Government intervention which guaranteed CF Industries production of CO2 until the end of this month was very welcome.”

But with just days now remaining before that agreement comes to an end, and energy prices still very high, there are concerns that there will be further CO2 shortages.

The situation could get “considerably worse” if Russia cuts off supplies of gas to Europe, amid ongoing tensions and the threat of an invasion of Ukraine.

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How realistic are food shortages?

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng arrives in Downing street (Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng arrives in Downing street (Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng arrives in Downing street (Photo: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

Those factors “could lead to shortages in the products we find on our supermarket shelves”, said the Food and Drink Federation spokesperson, “adding further pressures to families already coping with high food-price inflation.

“We will continue to work with the Government on this. It is critical that together we ensure supply can continue and that we build long-term resilience into the production of food-grade CO2,” added the Food and Drink Federation spokesperson.

British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen said: “We’re not panicking that we’re heading into a problem immediately. But it is frustrating that after three months we’re running up to the line and no-one knows where we are.

“The Government is optimistic that the plant is not going to close in the short-term. They are less optimistic that in the longer term it will carry on.

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“We’ve found more suppliers but nevertheless, if it closed we would only have about 70% of the CO2 we need for this country.”

Allen said it has been assured that animal welfare will be prioritised, along with the NHS and the nuclear power industry.

What can be done about it?

In September 2021, a deal brokered by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng saw the UK Government provide “limited financial support” towards CF Fertilisers’ running costs to prevent a food supply shortage at Britain’s supermarkets.

But that deal is now running out, and ends on 31 January 2022. The industry is hoping a similar deal can be struck, if need be, but is also calling for longer term solutions.

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British Beer and Pub Association chief executive Emma McClarkin said: “We continue to liaise with suppliers and are urging the Government to support those manufacturing processes we depend on for the majority of our CO2.

“The sector urgently needs a longer term solution to avoid further, sudden outages – particularly as energy prices are likely to remain high for some time.”

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