UK GOVERNMENT intervention to restart CO2 production has averted an immediate crisis in food supply, but industry figures warn that the situation is a 'wake up call' to rethink our food systems.

The CO2 used in the humane slaughter of pigs and poultry, as well as to extend the shelf life of meat, is produced commercially as a by-product of fertiliser manufacture.

Unfortunately, ammonia nitrate manufacturer CF Industries had suspended production of fertilisers at its sites in Billingham and Ince due to high gas prices.

Read more: Local abattoirs in crisis

With that shortage of CO2 threatening the supply of chicken and pork, and raising the prospect of further empty shelves in supermarkets, the UK government has now agreed to pay out tens of millions of pounds to CF to resume production, supporting costs for three weeks.

British Meat Processors Association chief executive, Nick Allen, explained that 80% of pigs and poultry are slaughtered using CO2 and that without it, abattoirs wouldn’t be able to operate.

He pointed out that this would only exacerbate the current delays caused by labour shortages, which have led to over 100,000 pigs backed up on UK farms.

Chief Executive of National Pig Producers, Zoe Davies, said that if the CO2 shortage was not resolved quickly then the industry would be 'two weeks away from being forced to cull perfectly healthy animals on farm and throw them in the bin', adding that if supply chains aren’t kickstarted it would be 'game over' for a lot of people.

James Withers of Scotland Food and Drink cautiously welcomed the UK Government’s intervention: “The detail will be important, particularly if the costs of CO2 are going rise for suppliers. If the plants get back up and running quickly, that should avert an immediate crisis. But we need to view this as buying some breathing space and not a permanent solution,” he stressed, adding that there have been two major CO2 shortage scares in three years.

Read more: Government bureaucracy twisting the knife in small abattoirs


"Being overly reliant on one or two production plants is getting too risky for a just-in-time food supply chain, let alone for the NHS," he said, calling for investment in alternative sources of CO2.

“Despite this progress, no-one should under-estimate the pressure on the food supply chain just now from ongoing labour shortages," said Mr Withers.

"Quick government action on CO2 is contrasted by a far too cavalier approach to staff shortages. There is a very real danger that shortages are going to get worse the closer we get to Christmas without government intervention.”

Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust said that the UK Government must take this opportunity to build resilience into local food supply: “Who could have imagined such a critical vulnerability of a greenhouse gas that the whole food industry has become umbilically dependent on.

“Yes, we need a short term fix, but this is not going to be a long term solution. We have become too centralised, too anonymous, too dependent on international trade. What we have here is an opportunity to build more localised food systems which aren’t dependent on CO2.”

NFU Scotland pigs and poultry policy manager, Penny Middleton added: “In order to maintain the high levels of animal welfare which Scottish farmers and processors pride themselves on, it is imperative that the small number of pig and poultry plants in Scotland have enough CO2 to continue to process pigs and poultry at a steady rate. Any potential disruption to supplies would compound the significant impact that Covid-19 and labour shortages are already having on our meat processing sector,” she concluded.