Why a shortage of carbon dioxide could mean no Christmas turkey

September 20, 2021, 12:16 PM UTC

Already faced with low worker turnout, the U.K. meat industry has a fresh headache: a shortage of carbon dioxide used to stun pigs and poultry before they are slaughtered.

Carbon dioxide is missing from slaughterhouses as fertilizer factories across the U.K. and European Union have shut down production in the face of rising gas prices.

The U.K. government has been already been holding emergency discussions with suppliers across the country to contain the knock-on effects of surging gas prices across different supply chains.

In this case, the gas shortages—caused by a perfect storm of stagnant wind farms, European climate policy, geopolitically tangled gas supply, and the COVID-19 pandemic—have pushed two large U.K. fertilizer factories owned by U.S. firm CF Industries Holdings to close. Norwegian firm Yara also said it would cut production at a number of its European plants because of spiking gas prices.

Carbon dioxide, which is a by-product of fertilizer production, is used not only to knock out pigs and poultry before slaughter, but also in packaging to extend the shelf life of meat.

The shortage comes at a time when the meat industry is struggling to employ workers as post-Brexit employment regulations forced many immigrants to return home.

“With fewer than 100 days to go until Christmas, and already facing mounting labor shortages, the last thing British poultry production needs is more pressure,” said British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths.

A ‘knife-edge’ situation

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) suspects the CO2 supply shock could mean food shortages within 14 days.

“This crisis highlights the fact that the British food supply chain is at the mercy of a small number of major fertilizer producers—four or five companies—spread across northern Europe,” said Nick Allen, the chief executive of the BMPA, who recently spoke with the U.K. government’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs on the issue.

Allen noted on Monday that his group’s members were saying they had between five and 15 days’ supply of CO2 remaining.

The U.K.’s poultry industry, which slaughters about 20 million birds each week, is in a similar situation because slaughterhouses keep only a limited amount of carbon dioxide on hand, according to Griffiths. “It is one of those things that nobody thinks about until the lack of it threatens to undermine U.K. food security,” he said.

Griffiths dubbed the shortage a “knife-edge situation,” calling for government action to be taken to reduce the harm done to poultry producers.

Meanwhile, the National Pig Association is calling the circumstances “potentially catastrophic” given that there is no more space on farms in the event of any further delays in the slaughtering process.

There are already 100,000 pigs backed up on farms, according to Rebecca Veale, senior policy adviser at the National Pig Association. She said that while a welfare cull was an “absolute worst-case scenario,” it was now a very real possibility.

The precarious balance of the U.K.’s meat market and reliance on CF Industries Holdings’ fertilizer plants illustrate how problems in one industry quickly ripple across a tightly interconnected economy.

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