Cheshire relief at CO2 rescue: ‘Can you imagine, no bacon or sausages?’ | Food & drink industry

Who among us has ever given much thought to what provides the fizz in a can of pop? Or how a pig is sedated before it becomes part of a bacon sandwich? Or how bread is vacuum-packed to extend its shelf life? Now we know: it’s carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for global heating, which is produced as a byproduct of the fertiliser industry.

We know because there was suddenly a nationwide shortage of CO2 after one of the world’s biggest fertiliser producers shut down its two UK plants last week due to spiralling gas prices.

On Tuesday, ministers closed in on a deal with CF Industries – which produces 40% of the UK’s fertiliser and 60% of the country’s CO2 – to finally reboot production and ease fears of food shortages as a result of the shutdowns.

Earlier in the day, when the Guardian visited the huge CF Industries industrial estate in Ince, a village near Chester with fewer than 300 residents (100 fewer people than are employed at the plant), the staff car park was still full.

Fertiliser production may have stopped but the company continued to pay workers to conduct site maintenance while a deal was hammered out. The workers, many of whom travel in from Ellesmere Port, will be relieved that production is set to restart but the surge in gas prices may leave the long-term future of the site uncertain.

The 140-acre CF Industries headquarters is sandwiched between the M56 motorway and the Manchester ship canal. Birdwatchers and dog walkers on the neighbouring Ince marshes may catch a glimpse of the sprawling fertiliser plant, but there is no clue as to the crucial role it plays in the UK’s meat industry or in the tonic for your G&T.

The site, along with its sister plant in Billingham, Teesside, stopped production on 15 September. No date has been given for either plant to fire up again.

Sarah Sanders, a co-owner of the family business Molly’s tearooms in the nearby village of Elton, breathed a sigh of relief at news that a deal was being struck to reboot production. The cafe and catering business, which often serves CF workers breakfast, would have been sorely affected by problems in the meat supply chain or fizzy drinks. “Can you imagine, having no bacon or sausages? It would have been the last thing we needed, after everything that the hospitality business has gone through,” she said.

Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of ammonia production for fertiliser. It is captured as smoke from combustion during the chemical process and then purified, before being kept as gas, refrigerated liquid or dry ice.

As well as being used in carbonated drinks, CO2 is pumped into some greenhouses to create higher concentrations of the gas to stimulate plant growth and boost crop yields. It is also used to stun pigs and poultry as part of the slaughter process, and to cool and freeze foods as dry ice.

With the two CF Industries sites out of service, a handful of other UK fertiliser manufacturers have been left to plug the gap. Remaining UK carbon dioxide production is being prioritised for medical uses. It is used during some invasive surgeries to stabilise body cavities, to stimulate breathing and to get rid of warts and moles. CO2 is also used by the nuclear industry as a coolant. And it is used commercially in fire extinguishers, for inflating life rafts and lifejackets, and as a liquid solvent.

As a relatively cheap byproduct, it does not make financial sense to transport large quantities of CO2 for long distances. That’s why the UK, a small island, has been hit harder by the shortage than continental Europe, especially as many food and drinks producers only store a few days’ worth of the gas.