Falling flat: lessons from the 2018 UK CO2 shortage
30 April 2019
CO2 is important in the production of food and drink. It creates bubbles in soft drinks, confectionery and some bakery products. It is used in some packaging, particularly in meat, bagged salads and bakery, to help prolong shelf life and keep food fresh. It is also used to humanely kill chickens and pigs in abattoirs.
In September 2021 due to multiple factors including rising gas prices, a major producer of food grade CO2 closed its two plants, resulting in severe CO2 shortages. Government quickly stepped in with short term financial aid, whilst contracts were renegotiated linking the price of CO2 to the gas price. Contracts were agreed within 3 weeks, and will be in place until the end of December 2021
FDF worked closely with Defra and impacted food companies from the initial notification of closure through to new contracts being signed. We are now work with Government to build longer term resilience into the supply of CO2, considering diversification of supply and storage. This work is taking as one of its starting points the FDF report following the 2018 CO2 crisis.
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This report sets out how the UK CO2 chain works, provides an analysis of its structural vulnerabilities and looks at how it might be strengthened.
The summer of 2018 will be remembered for the revival of England’s World Cup fortunes. However, as England won through to the semi-finals, the country was running out of CO2.
The shortage hit the headlines, with media fixing on an image of the UK running out of beer just at the moment of longawaited English footballing success.The potential impacts however went much further. For brewers and bakers, for local perations and global mega-brands, CO2 is a critical input. Few people realise that CO2 plays a role in everything from the production of fresh meat to the modified atmospheric packaging that keeps our salads and baked goods fresh.
The events in the summer of 2018 showed up a lack of resilience in the CO2 supply chain. Effort, ingenuity and extra resources deployed by businesses up and down the country mitigated the impacts of the shortages, but it is important to learn lessons from the crisis for the future. Some have labelled last summer’s events as a ‘perfect storm’, highlighting the unusual set of circumstances experienced by the CO2 chain: the coincidence of outages at production facilities; the heatwave that pushed up demand for drinks and frozen products; and the similar shortages experienced in Europe that curtailed availability of imports into the United Kingdom.
But the ‘perfect storm’ description risks giving false assurance that the events were a one off, and the impression that nothing can be done. In fact, the events were not entirely unique. Disruptions on a lesser scale have taken place several times in the last decade.
Last summer’s events were a wake-up call that we need to make the UK’s CO2 chain more resilient. A proper response should have three parts: learning from this summer’s shortage; preventing another such shortage happening in the future; and preparing for if it does.
This report forms part of the first step in this process; deepening our understanding about CO2 supply in the UK and what went wrong last summer. The report also concludes with some suggestions for action where the chain can be strengthened.
But this is just the beginning. We look forward to working with our members, other sectors, industry and government on steps that can be taken to make the CO2 supply chain more resilient and diverse. That way, we can all be sure of enjoying crumpets for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch and a pint in the evening.
Ian Wright CBE
Food and Drink Federation (FDF)