UK energy crisis: Government races to avert food shortages

LONDON (AP) — The British government is racing to avert shortages of meat, poultry and packaged foods amid a crisis in the food processing industry triggered by soaring energy costs.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said Tuesday that he hopes to reach a deal with the U.K.’s primary supplier of food-grade carbon dioxide to restore supplies of the gas that is used to stun animals before slaughter, preserve fruits and vegetables before packaging and to put the fizz into carbonated beverages.

Kwarteng is in talks with the company, CF Industries, which halted operations at its U.K. plants last week due to high natural gas prices.

“We’re hopeful that we can get something sorted today and get the production up and running in the next few days,” Kwarteng told the BBC. “It may come at some cost. We’re still hammering out details. We’re still looking at a plan.”

The squeeze on Britain’s food processing industry is among the visible impacts of a spike in natural gas prices as the global economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic — boosting demand for energy. Wholesale gas prices have tripled this year in Britain.

CF, which generates carbon dioxide as a byproduct of making fertilizer, announced Sept. 15 that it was halting production at two plants in the U.K. The company said it had no estimate for when production would resume.

Kwarteng said the government is discussing a range of options to bolster carbon dioxide supplies, including subsidizing production at CF.

Unless there’s a deal soon, shoppers will begin to notice shortages “in about 10 days,” said Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, a trade association for U.K. food and beverage manufacturers.

The just-in-time supply system that underpins both supermarkets and the hospitality industry “is under the most strain it has ever been in the 40 years it has been there,” Wright told the BBC. “It is a real crisis.”

Poultry and pork production are likely to begin declining by the end of this week.

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said some 20 million birds are grown and slaughtered each week, the majority of which are chickens.

“It will be a real challenge if there is a shortage of CO2 to the point that slaughterhouses cannot process the birds,″ he said. “That is really the worst-case scenario, which is why we are so hopeful that the government can step in here.”