UK food producers call for subsidies to tackle CO2 shortages | Food & drink industry

Food producers have called on the government to subsidise the fertiliser plants that produce the CO2 essential to much of the sector – including for packaging, fizzy drinks and animal slaughter – amid fears over shortages in supermarkets.

The Food & Drink Federation (FDF), which represents hundreds of food processors and manufacturers, joined retailers and meat producers in calling for urgent action as they warned of serious disruption in food supply chains.

“Across industry there is a united view that the situation is worsening, with little prospect of additional CO2 supply unless the UK government intervenes,” wrote the FDF’s chief executive, Ian Wright, in a letter to the secretary for food and rural affairs, George Eustice, seen by the Guardian. Wright said some companies had already stopped production and others could cease within the week.

Record energy prices forced the temporary shutdown of two fertiliser plants in the UK last week, which as a byproduct of the process generate 60% of the food-grade CO2 used in packaging meat and dairy products to keep them fresh. The gas is also used in the process of stunning pigs and poultry for slaughter.

Several major retailers confirmed that shoppers would begin to notice shortages by the end of next week of poultry, pork and some other fresh foods if the government did not take action.

Adam Couch, chief executive of the British pork producer Cranswick, said: “I call upon the government to act immediately to avert a major crisis in the food industry. The sector has been asking for support to ease the labour crisis, and now CO2 shortages could effectively bring production to a halt throughout the supply chain.

“The industry is already at tipping point ahead of the demanding Christmas period. We have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep food on the shelves, but there is a real risk of product shortages across the country if the government does not act immediately to address these issues.”

Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium, the trade body that represents most major supermarkets, said: “It is vital that government takes immediate action to prioritise key suppliers and avoid significant disruption to food supplies.”

Richard Walker, boss of the grocery chain Iceland, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is no longer about whether or not Christmas will be OK, it’s about keeping the wheels turning and the lights on so we can actually get to Christmas.”

Retailers said the CO2 crisis, which also affects fizzy drink and beer production and dry ice for keeping food shipments cool, was only adding to problems caused by shortages of HGV drivers and production issues on items such as crisps, confectionery and soft drinks caused by high demand and staff shortages driven by the pandemic and Brexit.

Two operators of abattoirs said they had less than a week’s supply of CO2 left in the tank. While some operators are able to switch to stunning animals with electricity, it is understood that most operators are not able to use this option, which is viewed as more distressing for animals.

Andrew Kuyk, the director general of the Provision Trade Federation, which represents the dairy and pig meat trade, said one UK-based ham and bacon manufacturer had only a couple of days’ supply of CO2 and did not have a new delivery scheduled.

The National Pig Association has warned of a backlog of about 95,000 pigs on farms. Its chief executive, Zoe Davies, said many abattoirs were already taking a quarter fewer pigs a week for slaughter than usual because of labour shortages.