Earlier this year, the UK’s main supplier of CO2 CF Industries permanently closed its Ince manufacturing facility, followed by a halt in production of ammonia at its Billingham Complex, leading to concerns over a UK-wide CO2 crisis.
The plant shutdowns came as the cost of producing ammonia (of which CO2 is a sellable by-product) became more expensive than its importation.
From animal slaughter and carbonation of beer and fizzy drinks to food packaging applications, the gas is an essential component of the entire food and drink supply chain and shortages have been linked to a potential food and drink crisis.
CO2 is injected into the packaging of perishable foods such as meat and vegetables to inhibit the growth of bacteria.
“When one link in a supply chain is affected, it has a knock-on effect,” commented Forbes Fyfe, Technical Account Manager for Agriculture Supply Chain at LRQA. “What we’ve learned over the past few years of near-constant global upheaval is that the old ways of thinking about supply chains are becoming obsolete.”
Culminating in a dearth of readily available and cost-effective CO2, businesses have been forced to seek new manufacturers or sellers to fulfil demand.
To preserve food safety, the LRQA advised that buyers ensure new suppliers are thoroughly screened for CO2 purity.
“Food grade CO2 must be at least 99.9% pure, and beverage grade – used in manufacturing carbonated drinks, including beer – must be even purer,” explained Fyfe.
“The two grades have different applications in food production and are tested for different contaminants.”
CO2 gives beer and soft drinks their distinctive fizz, in addition to prolonging freshness.
If fraud occurs and food or industry grade CO2 (99.5% pure) is missold as beverage grade, for example, the likelihood of carcinogens entering consumer food products is increased.
Gas contamination is believed to have been a leading factor in the ongoing US CO2 shortage, which is thought to have originated when energy company Denbury decided to use its existing CO2 supplies for enhanced oil recovery, drilling additional wells to feed its CO2 pipeline that supplies merchant CO2 plants.
Paying the price
In addition to shortages, rising prices of CO2 are having a significant impact on supply. According to LRQA, recent figures show that the price of CO2 in August 2022 was 37% higher than it was just four months prior, before the first plant closure was announced.
“Not only is the food sector fighting against shortages, but producers are also facing rising prices,” added Fyfe.
In the UK, rising prices are being intensified by the devaluing of the pound, increasing the likelihood of UK manufacturers to look for more cost-effective ingredients.
“To remain competitive, this means many manufacturers will be looking to make savings – creating a perfect climate for fraudsters to strike by offering cheap alternatives.”
Cheaper is rarely better and – as seen in the US recently – industry cannot afford to cut corners, especially when it comes to food safety.
“In times of change, it’s imperative to maintain vigilance regarding all types of food fraud.”