Expect the unexpected – CO2 shortage puts spotlight on contingency planning

The CO2 shortage, which thrust the pig industry into the headlines at the end of June, came out of nowhere. While the expectation is that disruption will be minimal, the situation has been a timely reminder for producers. Alistair Driver reports

Carbon dioxide – or rather the lack of it – hit the headlines last week in a big way. As the shortage forced the temporary closure of Scotland’s flagship Brechin abattoir, fears were voiced in the media about the possibility of more abattoirs having to turn pigs away and even pork and bacon shortages on supermarket shelves.

As Pig World went to press, however, the industry was optimistic that the problem would be resolved sooner rather than later, with minimal disruption to supply chains.

But the situation has focused minds on the need for better contingency planning in abattoirs and on farms in the event of unexpected disruption.

CO2 is produced commercially as a natural by-product from the production of ammonia and hydrogen from natural gas, or biological processes such

as fermenting beer or whisky. Ammonia plants often close for maintenance in the summer, outside peak production time for fertiliser, meaning CO2 supplies are always tight at this time of year.

This year, with demand particularly flat, more plants across Europe are shut down, affecting supplies in the UK and mainland Europe.

In the UK, this was further complicated by unexpected equipment failure affecting one of the two major national bulk CO2 producers.

CO2 is used by abattoirs to stun pigs and poultry prior to slaughter and is considered to be the most humane method. It is also used in food packaging to extend shelf life and to produce dry ice to keep products cool in transit.

As has been well-documented, the drinks sector is affected, too – a number of the big beer and soft drink companies have warned that their products are in short supply or have run out.

The Brechin plant, run by Quality Pork Ltd (QPL) and Tulip in conjunction with the co- operative Scottish Pig Producers (SPP), ran out of CO2 on June 26. Following an upgrade in stunning methods after a fire at the plant last year, it had no contingency plans in place.

Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) granted Tulip a temporary derogation to allow QMS- assured Scottish pigs to be processed at Tulip’s Ashton site and continue to carry the Specially Selected Pork logo.

At the time, with uncertainty over when supplies would resume and fears that other plants around the country would run out, SPP chief executive Andy McGowan warned that, if the situation carried on for more than a week, we could start to see animal welfare issues on farms due to overcrowding.

In its statement last week, Tulip said that ‘on the whole we are managing to maintain our supply chain’, although the situation remains ‘very fluid’. No other plants had run out of gas and British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen said, while many were ‘living a bit hand- to-mouth’, he was not aware of any facing imminent closure.

Industry bodies, including the NPA, and BMPA, have been holding regular meetings with Government, and processors have been in constant contact with gas suppliers.

One of the big frustrations, however, has been the lack of clarity and engagement from the gas sector over how long the problem could last.

However, at time of writing (June 29), the gas companies were assuring the industry that some plants should be back online by the start of the week commencing July 2, with supplies getting closer to full levels over the next few weeks. Mr McGowan said he had heard that Brechin might receive gas in the second half of the week.

Some industry organisations, including NFU Scotland president Jim McCormick in a letter to Business Secretary Greg Clark, called on the Government and gas companies to ensure the livestock sector is prioritised when it comes to distributing CO2 that becomes available to avoid animal welfare problems on farms.

The Government seems determined not to get too heavily involved, however, describing it as ‘an issue for industry’. There were suggestions that some pork and poultry products could be unavailable in supermarkets.

But NPA chief executive Zoe Davies insisted it was ‘business as usual’ on pig farms and said the situation had been ‘exacerbated by the media frenzy.

“As long as the gas comes next week (July 2), there won’t be a problem. If it takes longer, contingency plans have been put in place,” she said. “Even if gas did run short in other plants, they would be able to move over to electrical stunning. This would slow throughput, but pigs would be moved and prioritised according to need.”

Even if, as hoped, this is resolved relatively quickly, the situation has focused everyone’s attention on the need for better contingency planning across the gas, processor and farm sectors.

Dr Davies said: “Our advice to producers has been to think about what they would do should supply be disrupted and ensure they have plans in place. This is important regardless of the CO2 situation.”

Mr Allen described it as ‘a wake-up call’. “We have all agreed that, when the dust settles, we need to look at the lessons to make sure this doesn’t happen again and that, if it did, we are prepared. There is plenty of gas, but a lot of it is in the wrong place and can’t be transported.”

Red Tractor and AHDB have both responded by encouraging producers to ensure they are geared up to cope with this sort of disruption.

Red Tractor has written to members reminding all producers, ‘as a matter of urgency’ to ensure they have a documented disaster recovery (or ‘emergency’) plan covering actions to be taken in the event of various risks, including interruption to pig movements, which can occur for a variety of reasons, also including notifiable disease outbreaks.

“Most pig farms operate with little or no spare livestock accommodation capacity, and therefore immediately come under pressure in the event of an interruption to movements. “The producer is always responsible for the health and welfare of the pigs in their care and the producer must always take active responsibility.

“It is never acceptable to house pigs in overcrowded conditions.

“Therefore, because an interruption to movements off farm can happen without warning, and because the risk of overcrowding can arise almost immediately, the producer must consider, in advance, what to do in the event of such an interruption,” Red Tractor said.

AHDB has published a document outlining the five key considerations to help you prepare and to start contingency planning:

  • Speak to your processor and supply chain to establish what the current situation is in your abattoir, if you have not already been informed
  • Assess your means over six weeks in a worst case scenario if pig movements are disrupted, stopped or rolled
  • Map out your plan for each stage on your unit on how you would manage if the supply chain is disrupted
  • Identify and agree what steps would be taken in light of an emergency with:
    Feed suppliers (confirming feed supplies, forward orders, and any adjustments required to keep in spec);
    Neighbours (for alternative space/ building availability as temporary housing); and
    Contractors (fallen stock management, bedding supplies/ alternatives).
  • Ensure you are conforming to legal and assurance scheme requirements (space allowance, movement licences, etc). Quick links to the relevant Defra, Red Tractor and RSPCA websites can be found in the AHDB document.

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.