What is Carbon Dioxide and how is it used in the Food and Drink Industry?

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a chemical compound that is an odourless and colourless gas at room temperature. It enters the atmosphere through the exhalation of organisms and the combustion of matter as a byproduct of industrial production. CO2 has a wide range of uses across many different industries, in particular the food and drink industry.

Carbon dioxide is widely used in the packaging of fresh meats, fruit and vegetables, as the gas can prevent or slow down the formation of bacteria, which maintains quality and greatly extend the shelf life of products. Find out more about the creation of gaseous micro environments for packaged produce.

Furthermore, CO2 is particularly essential for the humane slaughter of livestock, such as pigs and chickens. There has been a recent increase in concern for animal welfare standards in the meat processing industry, and to ensure that an animal is insensitive to pain while being slaughtered, a European Union directive requires that all animals are stunned prior to slaughter. This requires an environment with a high carbon dioxide concentration to cause the animal to become unconscious.

Carbon dioxide is also required for a range of other uses within the food and beverage industry, including the creation of dry ice to keep food fresh for storage and transport, the purification of water, the encouragement of healthy growth of vegetables in greenhouses and in the production of fizzy drinks.

Why is there a CO2 Shortage in the UK?

A shortage of CO2 may be a confusing concept for many to come to terms with, due to the fact that it is constantly entering the atmosphere via a number of sources. However, it is not possible to capture the CO2 that is emitted by regular industries, so in order to produce carbon dioxide which is pure enough to be used in the food and drink industry, specialist equipment is required to capture, purify and separate gases.

Therefore, the UK has been relying on a steady supply of carbon dioxide from two main fertiliser plants in the North of England which belong to US-owned CF Industries. These plants produce up to 60% of the country’s food-grade gas, with a further 20% produced by other plants in the UK, and the remainder imported from overseas.

A CO2 shortage has arisen because CF Industries has shut down its Teesside and Cheshire fertiliser plants at very short notice due to rises in wholesale gas prices. The price of natural gas has shot up as economies around the world are recovering from The Pandemic, rising by over 70% across Europe during August alone [1]. As a result of these CF factories closing down, there has been a 60% cut in the UK’s food-grade carbon dioxide supply, which has raised fears over food supplies and the nuclear industry. This CO2 crisis highlights the issue that the British food supply chain is at the mercy of a small number of major fertilizer producers spread across the North of Europe.

Action is being taken as the UK government has agreed to pay out tens of millions of pounds to meet the full operating costs of running the CF Industries’ Billingham plant in Teesside for three weeks. This is with the hope of making it economically viable for CF Industries to keep production running, however it is unclear how long it will take to clear the backlog. As part of this deal, the food industry will have to pay five times more for carbon dioxide, causing prices to rise from £200 per tonne to £1,000 [3].

How is the CO2 Shortage affecting the Food and Drink Industry?

The looming CO2 shortage comes at a difficult time for UK food producers, as Britain’s food supply chain has already been greatly affected by The Pandemic, Brexit and the ongoing shortage of heavy goods vehicles drivers. Farms, food producers and supermarkets have warned that the shortage of CO2 will lead to further significant disruption to the manufacture and supply of fresh produce.

The BBC has reported that the grocery delivery firm Ocado has “limited stock” of frozen items and the Food and Drink Federation has described the situation as “a real crisis” with consumers likely to notice shortages in poultry, pork and bakery products within days [3].

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has warned that CO2 supplies could completely run out within two weeks, which may force slaughterhouses to close and pig farmers to cull their own animals on farms. This would be the first time farmers have destroyed their animals en masse since the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 [4]. Not only will the lack of CO2 cause farmers huge animal welfare problems, but British pork and poultry will shortly disappear of supermarket shelves. A shortage in the vacuum-packing process also means that up to five days of shelf life is lost for red meat and 14 days of shelf life is lost for poultry.

How are Edinburgh Sensors’ products used for the measurement of CO2 in the Food and Drink Industry?

The presence of Carbon dioxide can be detected and measured using a carbon dioxide sensor. Some common applications for a CO2 detector are in modified atmosphere packaging, animal husbandry, monitoring indoor air quality, process control and controlled environment horticulture.

Edinburgh Sensors have extensive expertise in field-deployable non-dispersive infra-red (NDIR) gas sensors. They have developed a range of real-time gas monitors, with several well-suited to carbon dioxide sensing for livestock stunning and slaughter for meat processing. Find out about the best gas sensors to measure emissions during Gas Stunning in Animal Husbandry.

Edinburgh Sensors also offer a range of gas monitoring options that are well-suited to creating micro environments to ensure quality control during fresh food storage and transportation. Read about Gas Sensors for the Development of Modified Atmospheric Packaging.

Despite the fact that Carbon Dioxide is difficult to detect, Edinburgh Sensors’ range of CO2 detectors allows for Carbon Dioxide measurement via the strong absorption of non-dispersive infrared technology. As well as being failsafe and easy to use for continual monitoring, NDIR sensors offer highly sensitive detection for gases such as CO2. This is because gases such as methane and carbon dioxide absorb infrared light very strongly and have characteristic fingerprint signals for unambiguous identification so even trace amounts of gases can be detected.

Depending on the exact needs, Edinburgh Sensors offers a range of CO2 sensors including the Gascard NG, Guardian NG, the IRgaskiT, and the Gascheck. Of these, the Gascard NG offers a huge amount of flexibility in its set-up, monitoring options and integration into connected systems.

Let us help with your Carbon Dioxide Measurement…

If you are interested in Carbon Dioxide Measurement or would like to find out more about possible carbon dioxide sensor applications, please do not hesitate to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.

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References

  1. https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/co2-shortage-food-supply-uk-shortages-what-used-for-supply-explained-1211955
  2. https://www.we-heart.com/2021/09/24/uk-food-shortages-explained-crisis-gas-shortages-co2/
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-58626935