Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an often-overlooked part of meat processing, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has put a spotlight on this important commodity.
Commercial CO2 is used to stun animals, keep product cold for transportation, and to cool meat products and equipment during meat processing. Yet, there are few viable alternatives that can easily replace the gas, leaving many larger processors at the mercy of fuel market fluctuations.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced ethanol production as demand for fuel decreased when people stopped driving and traveling. Meat and poultry processors worried that the supply of CO2 would not meet the demands needed to run production facilities efficiently.
Food industry trade groups formed a CO2 coalition to address the problem. It consisted of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), National Turkey Federation (NTF), and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), among other beverage industry organizations. In April, the coalition sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence alerting him to the dwindling CO2 supply and its implications for food and beverage companies.
The coalition met with White House officials as well as representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the US Department of Agriculture to plan for possible government intervention. Ultimately, government assistance was not needed.
“Due to this early anticipation and the cooperation of industry and government, shortages were successfully managed until carbon dioxide production increased again,” said Julie Anna Potts, chief executive officer and president of NAMI, in a statement.
Part of the reason the shortage didn’t spiral out of control was the decrease in demand from the beverage industry. Normally, springtime increases demand for carbonated beverages – which also use a large share of food-grade CO2 – as restaurants, sporting events, outdoor festivals and warm weather gatherings keep people eating and drinking together. This year, the normal bump in demand did not happen and more CO2 was available for food processors.
According to Joel Brandenberg, president of the NTF, no turkey companies had production disruptions as a result of the CO2 shortage, but it was a wake-up call for NTF members.
“I think this will become a regular part of our nature, monitoring for issues that could affect CO2 capture and periodically checking with our members to make sure they are not having supply issues,” Brandenburg said.
“People started driving again,” said Rich Gottwald, president and CEO of the Compressed Gas Association – one of the key stakeholders in the coalition. “We began to learn to live with COVID a little bit.”
Although the crisis was averted for most companies, shortages were reported as an obstacle to production among operators of small and medium-sized plants participating in a survey conducted by Cypress Research, Kansas City, Mo., on behalf of MEAT+POULTRY in late summer. And, in fact, CO2 production did go down by as much as 35% this past year, according to Gottwald. The recent rollout of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in December put the CO2 coalition on alert again because dry ice – the solid form of CO2 – is necessary for transporting the vaccine at very low temperatures.
After talking to food and beverage companies, representatives at Pfizer, government officials and dry ice manufacturers, Gottwald became confident that there would continue to be enough CO2 available.The three major applications for commercial CO2 are food (about 47%), beverages (15% to 16%), and dry ice (15%), Gottwald said.
“Of that dry ice, an additional 5% will be needed to move these vaccines around. So, it’s not a whole lot,” he said
In meat processing, CO2 is required in some stunning systems used by pork and poultry slaughtering operations before they are processed. In these applications, animals are lowered into a CO2-rich chamber that quickly renders the animals unconscious.
Large operations also use CO2 to cool the grinders and blending machines so ground meat doesn’t overheat while it is being processed. There is also a smaller proportion of CO2 that is used for cryogenically, flash-freezing steak cuts, ground meat patties, and other meat products.
When there is a shortage, there are limited alternatives of CO2 for meat processors. Nitrogen can be used for freezing and cooling but it is less effective and more expensive.
“As far as hog stunning is concerned, you have to go back to the old style of using electricity,” said Keith DeHaan, managing principal for Food and Livestock Planning Inc. “It’s not as effective and it’s slower, but it can be used.”
It can be cost-prohibitive to pivot to a different method of stunning. It is not easy to quickly change a major operation; especially because CO2 stunning and using electricity require different equipment and processes to render animals unconscious.
For the time being – when CO2 production decreases – processors will just have to absorb the costs and/or charge more for the finished product, DeHaan said. If CO2 continues to fluctuate in price or supply drops again, investing in new equipment that uses an alternative source of refrigerant could become more widespread for meat processors.
Food-grade CO2 is a byproduct of both ammonia fertilizer production and ethanol fuel, but ethanol tends to be the primary source because it is cheaper.
Ethanol’s main use is for blending with automobile gasoline. Thus, when demand for fuel goes down significantly it is not commercially viable to produce CO2 solely for food use.
According to the Renewable Fuels Association, about 208 ethanol plants are operating in the United States today and about 60 of those plants have CO2 capture capabilities.
“Of the estimated 158 plants that were closed, idled, or had reduced run rates as of April 24, we believe 50 of those plants had the ability to capture CO2 and therefore, an estimated 10 plants with CO2 capture capabilities were operating at full capacity,” the Renewable Fuels Association said. This inevitably pushed prices up.
“CO2 is a commodity, just like corn – and commodities are always available. It’s just a matter of who wants it more pays a higher price,” said Matt Gibson, vice president of food and livestock production at Lee Enterprises Consulting Inc., Sherwood, Ark.
Larger processors rely more on CO2 than smaller processors primarily because their operations have more uses for the gas. Smaller processors use it less because the scale of stunning, grinding and cooling doesn’t require as much CO2. This tends to be a double-edged sword when there is a shortage though.
“The smaller processors have the ability to pivot easier,” said Chris Young, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP). “On the other hand, when there is a shortage of something, we tend to be the last ones to get it because we aren’t buying in such large quantities.”
While outbreaks of the virus slowed or halted production in some of the larger facilities during the spring and summer, smaller operations were able to take on some of the added market demand. Yet, their ability to keep up with that demand was also strained by resources and a rise in CO2 prices did not help, Young said.
CO2 shortages are not new. In 2018, Europe experienced a shortage that threw World Cup beer drinkers into a panic and showed that the supply is very vulnerable to ammonia and ethanol production.
The CO2 shortage in the spring did not become the emergency for meat processors that some feared, but it did put a spotlight on how fragile the supply chains have become.
“To me, it would put up some red flags of caution if the commodity that I am using is so tied to the production of something else,” Young said.