A Carbon Dioxide Shortage Is Threatening the U.K.’s Supply of Beer and Crumpets

The food industry uses carbon dioxide in several ways, including packaging and meat processing

Save the crumpet Iain Farrell/Flickr

With a record-breaking heat wave underway and the World Cup in full swing, folks in the U.K. are clamoring for thirst-quenching fizzy drinks, cold beers and meat for barbecues. But as Agnieszka De Sousa reports for Bloomberg, a carbon dioxide shortage is putting these summertime food staples—and many others—at risk. Not even crumpets, the yeasty cakes that Brits eat for breakfast, are safe.

The food industry uses carbon dioxide in a number of ways. CO2 gives bubbly drinks their fizz and is used in the packaging of many foods to prevent the growth of bacteria. The gas also can have an anaesthetic effect, so meat processing plants use it to stun animals before slaughter.

Recently, however, the CO2 supply in Europe has been dropping. As Joanna Sampson of the trade publication Gas World explains, most food-grade carbon dioxide in Europe is the byproduct of the production of ammonia, which is used in fertilizers. Because peak fertilizer production takes place between August and March, many ammonia plants slow their operations or shut down for maintenance from April to June. This year, an unusually high number of plants have simultaneously closed to deal with technical failures or planned repairs, according to Anna Mikhailova of the Telegraph. And that isn’t the only problem.

“What has compounded the situation this year is not only the timing of all the maintenance procedures, but that ammonia market prices have fallen to a low and imports are available from outside of Western Europe that has led to European producers prolonging the downtime of the ammonia plants within the region,” Sampson writes. “Also, due to the higher pricing of natural gas—a major raw material for ammonia production—the margins in the ammonia business are not that attractive.”

Countries across northwestern Europe are affected by the shortage. Breweries in Germany and Norway have shut down or been forced to carefully manage their supplies. The city of Oslo has banned residents from watering their gardens, in part because a lack of CO2, which is used to treat water, has led to a shortage of clean drinking water.

The U.K. has been particularly hard hit. Rebecca Smithers of the Guardian reports that three out of five major CO2 producers shut down recently, though one of them resumed operations on Monday. Over the past few weeks, Coca-Cola's European bottler temporarily halted some of its production lines and Booker, the U.K.’s biggest wholesaler, was forced to ration sales of beer, ciders and soft drinks. Meat supply chains have been disrupted and the baked-goods producer Warburtons, which uses CO2 to package its crumpets, announced that two of its four factories had temporarily stopped production.

The shortage could persist until September, and manufacturers are trying to find ways to work around the lack of CO2 . Some meat producers have resorted to stunning animals electrically before they are killed, and they are using vacuum packing and other gases to keep their meat fresh. Meanwhile, the pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which had been unable to serve certain beers on draft, said that its supplies were nearly back to normal, Smithers reports.

So fear not, football fans; frothy pints can still be had during England’s World Cup match against Colombia this afternoon.

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