Shoppers will start noticing shortages within days as a result of the crisis in carbon dioxide (CO2) supply, a food industry chief has warned.

The gas is used in food packaging and as a method of stunning animals prior to slaughter but supplies are running low, write David Hughes and Helen William of PA.

Spiralling energy costs have led to the suspension of operations at fertiliser plants – which produce CO2 as a by-product – having a knock-on effect on the food industry.

CO2 is injected into the packaging of perishable foods such as meat and salads to inhibit the growth of bacteria. It typically prolongs the shelf life of products such as beef steak by around five days.

The halt to CO2 production comes as supply chains are already grappling with a shortage of HGV delivery drivers, heaping yet more pressure on UK supermarkets’ “just in time” model.

Alongside warnings of gaps on supermarket shelves if the issue is not resolved promptly, the result will be widescale food waste as retailers are forced to discard otherwise perfectly good products.

Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said consumers could start noticing shortages in poultry, pork and bakery products within days.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Government needed to support fertiliser producers, help food producers to look for alternatives to CO2 and address labour shortages in the industry.

“We have been saying for several weeks now that the just-in-time system which underpins both our supermarkets and our hospitality industry is under the most strain it has ever been in the 40 years it has been there,” he said.

“It is a real crisis.”

He said that poultry production will begin to erode very seriously by the end of this week, with the same being true of pig production.

The production of bakery goods and meat packaging is “probably only about a week behind”.

“We probably have about 10 days before this gets to the point where consumers, shoppers and diners notice that those products are not available,” he said.

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, told the BBC: “We grow and slaughter around 20 million birds a week, the vast majority of those are chicken. We also trade, so total consumption in this country is somewhere around 30 to 35 million birds a week.

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

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he has held talks with fertiliser firm CF Industries, which suspended operations at two UK sites because of the high cost of energy, leading to CO2 supply issues.

“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 Today.

In a sign that taxpayers’ money could be used, Mr Kwarteng said “it may come at some cost, we’re still hammering out details, we’re still looking at a plan”.

Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) head of environment and resource management Jon Foot warned that the crisis could affect next year’s crops.

He said: “As energy prices spike to new highs, the price for natural gas has resulted in major producers of fertilisers closing down their facilities. The problems are unlikely to be resolved over the winter, as demand for energy in the winter months continues, and supplies of natural gas will remain restricted, and despite Government ministers talking to the energy industry and producers of fertiliser, we should assume this crisis will feed into next year’s crop.

“This has impacted both the livestock sectors where a lack of carbon dioxide used to humanely stun the pigs before slaughter is in short supply and has caused the animals to back up on farm, and the closure of the fertiliser factories has caused the price of fertiliser to double in under a week. Many farmers have sufficient fertiliser in stock to establish their winter crops, but supplies are less certain for spring sown crops.”

The warnings of shortages are the latest from the food industry.

Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of Bernard Matthews and 2 Sisters Food Group, has warned a shortage of both carbon dioxide and workers could mean Christmas dinners will be “cancelled”.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said cancelling Christmas is “very much not the plan” despite prospects of a turkey shortage and a spike in coronavirus cases during the festive season.