The CO2 crisis: Food safety authorities warn of contamination risk

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03 Jul 2018 --- Food safety regulators are highlighting potential contamination issues as food business operators try to manage their carbon dioxide supply amid a shortage in the gas. The possible food safety issues can relate to the quality of “food grade” carbon dioxide, as CO2 can be a potential source of contamination in food. Therefore, carbon dioxide used in food or in contact with food must be fit for purpose, says both the Food Standards Agency of the UK and Ireland.

As the shortage of CO2 continues across Europe, many business in the soft drinks, beer and meat sectors have been disrupted and continue to be concerned. This is even though supplies are expected to slowly return to normal over the coming weeks.

Two key carbon dioxide production sites in the UK have come back online following a period of closure and now there is speculation over a bidding war between meat, soft drinks, packaging and beer industries which all need to get hold of supplies.

A UK Food Standards Agency spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst that it is keeping track of the situation and is in contact with other government departments and organizations across the food and drink sector to provide advice during this period. “This includes the meat industry where we have been able to accommodate requests allowing some abattoirs to work extended hours to ensure operations are maintained."

The Food Safety Authority Ireland (FSAI) has issued advice as the current shortage of carbon dioxide throughout Europe is likely to impact the food and beverage industry in Ireland too.

“The temporary use of certain ‘non-food grade’ carbon dioxide for the stunning of poultry and pigs prior to slaughter and for use in modified atmosphere packaging of food represents a low risk to consumers,” says the FSAI.

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CO2 is used extensively in the food and beverage
industry for a variety of food purposes.

“Nevertheless, FBOs should, in the first instance, seek to use ‘food grade’ carbon dioxide, where available, for these purposes. However, in the absence of stocks of ‘food grade’ carbon dioxide, FBO’s may substitute use of carbon dioxide with no less than 99 percent purity.”

The FSAI also reminds FBOs of their obligation under the general food law (Regulation 178/2002 Article 14) to place only safe food on the market. Therefore, FBOs need to exercise due diligence in their supply of carbon dioxide and ensure that it meets or exceeds the required specification and that it is supplied by a reputable supplier.

“Carbon dioxide delivery systems may need to be ‘cleaned’ appropriately to ensure that there is no build-up of contaminants during the use of ‘non-food grade’ carbon dioxide (>99% purity). This is a temporary allowance only applicable during the current carbon dioxide shortage and FBOs must revert to ‘food grade’ carbon dioxide as soon as it is available,” it says.

CO2 is used extensively in the food and beverage industry for a variety of food purposes such as adding bubbles to beer and soft drinks, drinks dispensing systems and extension of shelf-life with modified atmosphere packaging (MAP).

Investigation into CO2 effects on MAP
With the background of the crisis, food & beverage research association Campden BRI has launched a project to investigate the effects of carbon dioxide on the shelf-life of modified atmosphere packed (MAP) foods, to help manufacturers operating in this area to understand the effects of reducing CO2 concentration on shelf-life. This will allow them to make judgments on pack shelf-life that are based on scientific data.

The project will investigate the effects of different mixes of carbon dioxide and nitrogen on spoilage-related shelf life – ranging from 100 percent nitrogen to 70 percent nitrogen/30 percent carbon dioxide.

Three MAP packed foods will be included in the study and chosen by the club members. But these could include ready-to-eat cured sliced meat, ready-to-eat uncured sliced meat, raw meat/chicken, bakery products or ready meals.

“We have been inundated with enquiries from companies across industry asking how the carbon dioxide shortage will affect their products – in particular, the effect that a reduced level of carbon dioxide in MAP will have on shelf-life,” says Dr. Roy Betts, Head of Microbiology, Campden BRI.

“There is very little information available on the effects of reducing or eliminating the packing gas CO2 on the shelf-life of food. Manufacturers have either had to continue using the concentration of CO2 needed for their established shelf-life with the risk of running out, or reduce or eliminate CO2 and estimate the effect of this on shelf-life.”

Estimating shelf-life could lead to the food “spoiling” before the end of life (if the estimated life is too long) or valuable shelf-life being wasted (if the estimated life is too short). We have responded by launching this club project so manufacturers can base their decisions on scientific evidence.”

FBOs should not simply replace carbon dioxide in MAP with another inert gas e.g. nitrogen, without first validating the safety of the shelf-life applied to the food, stresses the FSAI.

“Where the gas mixture used in a MAP process is a critical control point (CCP) in the FBO’s food safety management system, Regulation 852/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs requires that CCPs are validated and verified,” continues its advice.

“FBOs should discuss problems caused by the shortage of carbon dioxide with their Competent Authority.”

Supply chain disruption
News of potential contamination issues come as businesses wait for supplies to return to normal which could still take some time.

Chief Executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), Nick Allen tells FoodIngredientsFirst that the CO2 shortage continues to cause considerable disruption throughout the meat supply chain.

“The BMPA welcomes the news that at least one plant has restarted production. It will take time for that to filter through the supply chain and we are still expecting plants to be experiencing problems over the next two to three weeks until normal supplies are fully restored,” he says.

“Plants are having to improvise, which they can do by changing packaging methods. This is being done in close consultation with their customers to try and ensure that the consumers are able to find meat in the shops and enjoy it in restaurants and other outlets.”

Allen adds that some ranges are having to be compromised on to ensure that shelves are kept full.

“Logistically it is proving very challenging for the meat supply chain and everyone is working hard to overcome the problems. Demand is particularly very high at this time for barbeque meat due to the hot weather and, of course, the football World Cup.”

‘’We are hoping that the increase in CO2 production will happen quickly. We have a number of plants that will be in difficulty by the end of the week if supplies do not materialize and it will be very difficult to keep everyone stocked with meat.’’

The CO2 shortage began to bite at one of the busiest times of the year for beer and soft drinks’ sales, just as World Cup fever gripped Britain and Europe and while many countries in Northern Europe started a heatwave.

CO2 used in food manufacture is, mainly, a by-product of the production of ammonia (for fertilizer) which is in high demand in the spring but this falls off in the summer. Several CO2 manufacturers have used this time for maintenance work on plants and operations.

By Gaynor Selby

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