Britain's food industry is warning that millions of animals will be destroyed and shop shelves will be short of supplies within 10 days unless the government takes urgent action.
The closure of two of the UK’s largest fertiliser plants, which supply two thirds of the nation’s carbon dioxide, has led to panic across the country’s meat and poultry sectors.
The industry relies on carbon dioxide for stunning poultry and pigs, and for packaging that extends the shelf life of products such as meat and vegetables.
Rapidly rising gas prices have led the plants to close but the impact is being felt across the food sector.
With consumer gas bills expected to rise in the coming months owing to the crisis, it is thought the first effect the public will see will be on supermarket shelves.
Industry leaders are calling on the government to take urgent action and offer financial bailouts to the companies before the crisis hits supermarkets.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, told The National that supply issues could be seen in shops and restaurants within 10 days.
“Important parts of the food and drink supply chain – already under significant pressure from the impacts of labour shortages – are now seriously compromised by disruptions in the supply of CO2,” he said.
“Two thirds of the CO2 volume that normally supplies the food and drink industry is now not available following the suspension of manufacturing by key producers.
“CO2 is essential to the manufacture of many food and drink products. This shortage will have serious consequences on the UK’s food and drink supply chain.
“While there is no danger of us running out of food or drink, we will see the impact of this on UK shop shelves and in hospitality very soon. Sudden and unpredictable changes to availability are very likely.
“Continuing labour shortages and rising costs of raw materials are also important disrupters. We are working with government to identify an urgent solution to the immediate supply crisis, as well as how best to safeguard against future incidents.”
He said that poultry and pig production will begin to be “very seriously” affected by the end of the week and meat packaging will follow a week later.
Chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, said the industry is on a knife-edge and has not been told how much carbon dioxide stock is presently held in the UK.
Its slaughterhouses and processing plants, which go through an average of 20 million birds a week, hold limited stocks of carbon dioxide. Mr Griffiths said they are in limbo because suppliers are not scheduling deliveries beyond 24 hours in advance.
“With fewer than 100 days to go until Christmas, and already facing mounting labour shortages, the last thing British poultry production needs is more pressure,” he told The National.
“If CO2 supplies become tighter and more unpredictable then supply chains will have to slow down. Ultimately, no CO2 means no throughput.
“We need the government to help facilitate and financially support that prioritisation to maintain food supply and avoid bird welfare issues. We are working closely with Defra and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to assess stock, implement contingency plans and mitigate any major impact on a sustainable supply of food.
“Our members are on a knife-edge situation at the moment. When birds cannot be slaughtered and must be kept on farm there is the potential for welfare, food supply and food waste issues to arise.
"If vital sectors like the poultry meat industry face CO2 shortages that compromise their performance, it will very quickly become an issue of national security. We hope this can be avoided through swift government action.”
On Tuesday, UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng faced questioning from politicians about the growing crisis.
He has been in discussions to examine the possibility of subsidising the country’s largest carbon-dioxide producer, CF Industries, to increase reserves and to ensure production can resume "as quickly as possible".
The company halted production at two plants following a rise in gas costs caused by cold weather in Europe and Asia.
“Time is of the essence, and that’s why I spoke to the CEO, speaking to him twice in the last two days, and we’re hopeful that we can get something sorted today and get the production up and running in the next few days," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Mr Kwarteng said “it will come at some cost … we’re still hammering out details, we’re still looking at a plan”.
However, he said consumers would be the government's first priority.
"Protecting consumers is our primary focus and is shaping our entire approach to this issue," he said.
“They must come first.”
Kerry Maxwell, of the British Poultry Association, said the industry has still not received an update from the government in response to its request for urgent help.
“Things are changing minute by minute. We are remaining eagle-eyed on the situation and are continuing to ask the government to financially help the CO2 industry,” she told The National.
“The worst case scenario is, if CO2 supply becomes more unpredictable and depleted it will slow down all our production and it will impact the industry and consumers in the run up to Christmas.”
The chairman of the National Pig Association, Rob Mutimer, said that if the situation facing the pork industry does not change, farmers will be forced to slaughter their own animals, owing to a lack of space and feed.
“If the situation doesn’t change, it’s going to spiral completely out of control,” he said.
“And the only end-game there is ... we as farmers are going to end up slaughtering our livestock – not for the food chain but to put them into rendering, to dispose of carcasses like what happened in foot and mouth.
“And that’s a terrible situation to be in.”