“We’ve got chickens trying to escape everywhere and workers who aren’t used to handling them.” That was how the manager of one major poultry processing plant in England described scenes after the unit was forced to switch last week from stunning birds with gas to using electrical stunning. “It’s taking a lot longer to get everything through, but we’ve got no choice.”
Nobody saw it coming, which is surprising given how CO2 is an integral component of food production across multiple sectors. An input used on a massive scale that had never before shown signs of supply limitations, and therefore not contemplated as the route by which British food production could grind to a halt.
Unlike in the pig sector, no plants have been forced to close, and according to the British Poultry Council, none of the 20 poultry processing plants in the UK are likely to have to. Other products were affected though, from beer to fizzy drinks and even crumpets.
The BPC’s chief executive Richard Griffiths says we are hopefully moving towards a conclusion of this crisis. “We still await confirmation of when CO2 production will be fully up-and-running and normal levels of supplies will resume.” Three weeks is the time scale many in the industry are working on. If it goes beyond that, closures may be inevitable.
The initial shortage, caused by the routine summer closure of the ammonia plants around Europe that manufacture fertiliser of which carbon dioxide is a by-product, was compounded in the first week of July by a power outage at one of the only remaining plants based in Cheshire.
“We took supply for granted,” says one senior poultry industry executive. “But any shortage impacts right down the chain back to hatcheries. What do you do with chicks if farms can’t take them because they can’t send their existing birds to slaughter?”
With poultry half the meat the UK eats, if sites do run out of CO2 the impact of not being able to slaughter and process birds will quickly lead to supply problems and the need to hold birds on farm, with the welfare implications that presents. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) were quick to highlight the welfare risk, but so far, it hasn’t materialised.
“If there are not adequate supplies of CO2 to slaughterhouses this could result in a backlog of animals leading to a critical animal welfare situation on farms if they cannot be processed,” said John Fishwick, president of the BVA. “In addition, the lack of CO2 would also affect the ability of farms to carry out emergency slaughter on site. Along with colleagues in the poultry industry, the veterinary profession is calling on all major gas producers to prioritise CO2 supplies to slaughterhouses in order to ensure standards of animal welfare are maintained and to keep the food chain moving. The British poultry industry has some of the highest welfare standards in the world and action must be taken to ensure that these CO2 shortages do not jeopardise the UK’s reputation in this area.”
Griffiths points out a great deal of praise is due for the professional and unified manner in which the meat sectors and Government departments have worked over the last weeks, but it begs two questions: why didn’t we see it coming, and are we prepared for the future? “The first perhaps needs some time for reflection and analysis, and the second should surely be a wake-up call for British food security,” he says.
“We all think British food is the best, with great standards and values we can trust. However, we also have to be realistic in that to feed over 60 million people three square meals a day the scale of production has to be enormous, and that means supply chains that extend beyond our own borders.”
The CO2 crisis has drawn attention to just how vulnerable we are. And once again all roads lead back to Brexit. The majority of CO2 is produced in a handful of plants across Europe, and the same can be said of much of the machinery used on farms and in factories. “We rely on cross-border movement to supply some of the fundamentals that we then combine to produce British food, whether that’s technology, ingredients, or workforce,” says Griffiths. “If British food is to be the future of feeding our nation, then we need to be an outward facing and inclusive country, not one with hard borders and barriers.”
A shortage of CO2 is just an illustration, indicative of the integrated nature of food supply. One thing going wrong has the potential to jeopardise the choice and amount of food that reaches our supermarket shelves.
Our just-in-time model makes food cheap, easily accessible, and normally it flows perfectly well. But when things go wrong, it’s tested to its limits, and cracks very quickly start to show. “It also, so far, demonstrates the resilience and robustness inherent in both our production chains and our people. If some similar shortage happens in the future when the movement of goods, services, and people is limited then our current getting by could very easily turn into catastrophic failure,” says Griffiths.
“To achieve any sort of scale there is no such thing as a self-contained supply chain,” he adds. “Any contingency plans must allow for easy and quick movement, and indeed our everyday logistics for the just-in-time supply of perishable goods is predicated on it. To compromise that is unthinkable. One of the first questions asked when CO2 began to run low was ‘can we bring more in from mainland Europe?’. The question assumed there would be no barriers to doing so, apart from availability. No blockages, no checks, no tariffs, just the movement of goods when urgently needed.”
This situation also shows the scope of sectors that are part of food supply. Farmers have always been proud to be food producers, but what about gas suppliers, machinery manufacturers, Government regulators, and the plethora of skills and services that we rely on? Do they see themselves as integral to feeding people? If not, they should, and they should be proud of it.
“I’ve seen that pride time and again when the poultry meat sector meets a challenge head-on, and I’ve seen it in all the people who have stepped-up to deal with a lack of CO2,” says Griffiths. “Yes, we have international supply chains, but what makes food British is not isolationism, it’s the values and pride we put into producing it.”