What’s the problem?
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) used in food manufacture is, mainly, a by-product of the production of ammonia (for fertiliser). Ammonia production across Europe usually stops during the spring months and stocks of CO2 are then used to supply contracts. In the past year there has been a lower than average production of ammonia, and hence CO2, due to low prices, and at least one gas supply company has had technical difficulties that have restricted production further. The result is a severe lack of CO2 available to food manufacturers.
A high proportion of the British poultry meat sector (50% to 60%) uses CO2 to stun birds as part of the slaughter process, and all companies use CO2 as part of the packaging (shelf-life) process.
What does a lack of CO2 mean for poultry meat production?
The absence of CO2 means that many poultry producers will have to slow or halt their processes. If birds cannot be stunned, then they cannot be slaughtered.
The inability to slaughter birds has the direct impact on the supply of food, both in quantity and consistency of supply.
Looking backwards down the production chain, an inability to slaughter would mean birds remaining on farm. In this scenario their welfare would have to be carefully managed in respect to requirements such as stocking density, which could be exceeded within two days. A further impact may be on hatching of chicks with no farms to go to. Decisions would have to be made as to removal of flocks/stock from the production process, which may mean on-farm slaughter.
If such actions need to be taken it not only risks the immediate supply of poultry meat, but will mean a lengthier gap as flocks/farms have been taken out of the production cycle and it will take time to reintroduce them.
What are the current stocks of CO2?
It varies from business to business, but the worst case is one day’s supply and best case is two weeks’ supply. Without additional gas, even the best case is very limited and could quickly become critical.
What is the industry doing?
Where possible, slaughterhouses are activating the backup slaughter options, but this is not capable of maintaining the volume of production for a significant length of time and is intended as a temporary emergency option. Businesses are also diverting available gas away from packaging to stunning, but this cannot sustain production for more than a few days.
We are working with Government departments (Defra, FSA, BEIS), to explore what supplies are available and how they can be prioritised.
What does this mean for the UK?
The risk to food supply and food security is not limited to meat production, as CO2 is used widely across food manufacture, e.g. drinks production. A logical consequence is that any food production that relies on CO2 could see slowing or stopping of production.
How can Government help?
We believe this situation is a threat to consistency of food supply in this country and should be recognised as such.
Where CO2 supplies are available we would like to see the food livestock sectors prioritised (after human health).
If CO2 is not available, or runs out, we would like Government to assist industry in obtaining new sources, investing in alternatives, and strengthening the supply chain to avoid a repeat.
Does the BPC have a statement?
BPC Chief Executive, Richard Griffiths, said:
“With the supply of CO2 tightened across Europe, the British Poultry Council is calling on Government and major gas producers to prioritise supplies to slaughterhouses and keep the food chain moving. We are assessing what the possible impact on food supply might be, and BPC members are working hard to minimise the effect.
It is worrying that failures in the gas sector can have such a potentially huge effect on British food production. The BPC will be working closely with Defra, BEIS, retailers, and gas suppliers to implement contingency plans and mitigate any major impact on sustainable supply of food.”