U.K. Fears for Its Beer and Crumpets. Blame a Carbon Dioxide Shortage.
Posted June 29, 2018 11:42 a.m. EDT
LONDON — Beer, barbecues and crumpets, three staples of life in Britain as it enjoys an unusually warm summer, may soon experience shortages as the country faces an unexpected shortfall — of carbon dioxide.
The gas is used in a wide range of ways, including to give beer and soft drinks their fizzy quality, and to stun animals before they are slaughtered. Food companies also use carbon dioxide to give their products a longer shelf life.
But the gas is increasingly in short supply.
Carbon dioxide has many sources, but it is a byproduct, among other things, of ammonia fertilizer. Several plants in Britain and elsewhere in Europe that produce fertilizer have had to shut down for maintenance, a renovation period that coincides with the region’s warmest months. Technical difficulties at other plants have squeezed supplies further.
Food safety requirements mean that companies cannot simply capture carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere. Companies that sell the gas acquire it from ammonia plants before cleaning and purifying it. That has left many companies (and customers) in Britain worried that summer cookouts may soon be off the menu.
What products are at risk?
As England progressed to the knockout stage of the soccer World Cup, brewers, bars and pubs were closely monitoring supplies of carbon dioxide, or CO2.
Wetherspoons, which operates nearly 900 pubs across Britain, said that some of its sites were no longer serving brands including John Smith’s beer and Strongbow cider on tap. Heineken, the Dutch brewer that owns those two brands, said its carbon dioxide supplier in Britain had been struggling to provide the gas.
Some other major brewers have so far been able to mitigate the shortfall because they have carbon dioxide recovery systems that allow them to reuse gas created in the brewing process. Wetherspoons says it expects supplies to return to normal soon.
— Soft drinks
The Coca-Cola Co. temporarily stopped its production lines in Britain last weekend to conserve carbon dioxide, but it says there was no disruption of supplies to consumers.
However Booker, a major British wholesale provider of food and drinks, said it had started limiting sales of soft drinks because of supply issues. In practice, that means that convenience stores looking to stock up on soda and other carbonated drinks could buy only 300 cans of certain brands at a time.
The spongy British treats, often served with tea, are moist, so producers use carbon dioxide in packaging to give them a shelf life of about a week.
Warburtons, a British bakery brand that makes about 10 million crumpets a week, said Friday that it was producing only half as many as that because two of its sites were out of the gas, while one other was in low supply.
As much as 60 percent of the poultry industry in Britain uses carbon dioxide to stun birds before slaughter, and the gas is also used in the packaging of meat products.
The British Poultry Council, a trade group, has warned that some businesses are reserving their limited supplies of the gas for use in slaughterhouses, rather than for packaging, to ensure that chickens are killed in a more humane fashion. Those supplies might not last more than a few days, however, at which point slaughtering might have to stop.
And an abattoir in Scotland that slaughters about 60 percent of the pigs there has transported some of its animals to locations in neighboring England because the company had run out of carbon dioxide.
— When will the shortfall be resolved?
Food and beverage companies say they are doing their best to maintain supplies of their products, and that there are no shortages on store shelves yet.
The country’s Business and Energy Department has been holding talks with companies in the gas industry, and has “been assured CO2 producers are working as fast as they can to get plants up and running again.”
The Beer and Gas Man, which supplies gas to about 750 pubs, has said it expects a shipment next week.
But it is unclear when the issue might be fully resolved.
“At this stage,” the trade organization Food and Drink Federation said in a statement, “there is still a key question about when a regular supply of CO2 will be available.”