Britain's meat processors will start running out of carbon dioxide (CO2) within five days, forcing them to halt production and impacting supplies to retailers, the UK industry's lobby group has warned.
A jump in gas prices has forced several domestic energy suppliers out of business, and has shut fertiliser plants that also make CO2 as a by-product of their production process.
The CO2 gas is used in a number of key processes — to stun animals before slaughter, in the vacuum packing of food products to extend their shelf life, and to put the fizz into beer, cider, and soft drinks. CO2's solid form is dry ice, which is used in food deliveries.
The CO2 crisis has compounded an acute shortage of truck drivers in the UK, which has been blamed on the impact of Covid-19 and Brexit.
"My members are saying anything between five, 10 and 15 days supply [remain]," Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association told Sky News. With no CO2, a meat processor cannot operate, he said:
"We're two weeks away from seeing some real impacts on the shelves," he said, adding that poultry could start disappearing from shops even sooner.
Mr Allen said the British government was working to try and resolve the issue and might be able to persuade fertiliser producer CF Industries to re-start its UK plants. British business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said he met CF Industries CEO Tony Will to explore ways to secure CO2 supplies.
"Work is ongoing ... to ensure that those sectors which are impacted by this ... have appropriate contingency plans in place to ensure that there is minimal disruption," he told the UK parliament.
Meanwhile, the British Soft Drinks Association warned some manufacturers had only a few days of CO2 left. Some in the poultry industry fear a Christmas crisis. Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of 2 Sisters Food Group and Bernard Matthews, said the CO2 issue was "a massive body blow", noting that the supply of turkeys this Christmas was already compromised by UK labour shortages.
Shares in processor Cranswick, whose products include fresh pork and chicken and gourmet sausages, fell 4% after it said production could be halted. The crisis is also having a more immediate impact.
British online supermarket group Ocado said it had temporarily reduced the number of lines it is able to deliver from its frozen range. Dry ice is used to keep items frozen during delivery. The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK retailers including the major supermarket groups, said the CO2 shortage had compounded existing pressures on production and distribution.
It said it was "vital that government takes immediate action to prioritise suppliers and avoid significant disruption to food supplies".
Britain's National Farmers Union said it was concerned about the shortages of fertiliser and CO2.