Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of Bernard Matthews and Birmingham-based 2 Sisters Food Group, says the decision by the US owner of two of Britain’s biggest CO2 producers to halt production is “irresponsible and catastrophic for our sector.”
CO2 is a vital component in food production and is is used in the despatch of poultry and in packaging to extend shelf-life. CO2 is also vital in cooling systems for refrigeration purposes.
Mr Boparan is known as the Chicken King because of 2 Sisters extensive chicken processing operation that includes factories in West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.
He said: “There are less than 100 days left until Christmas and Bernard Matthews and my other poultry businesses are working harder than ever before to try and recruit people to maintain food supplies. Nothing has fundamentally changed since I spoke about this issue in July. In fact I take no pleasure in pointing out that the gaps on the shelves I warned about then are getting bigger by the day.
"The supply of Bernard Matthews turkeys this Christmas was already compromised as I need to find 1,000 extra workers to process supplies. Now with no CO2 supply, Christmas will be cancelled."
Mr Boparan said that the C02 issue was a massive body blow and put his group at breaking point.
"Without CO2, the bottom line is there is less throughput and with our sector already compromised with lack of labour, this potentially tips us over the edge," he warned.
A commercial decision by CE Industries to halt fertiliser production at two plants in the UK at Stockton-on-Tees and Ince in Cheshire where CO2 is the main byproduct – means food processing and production plants owned by Mr Boparan will lack the ability to produce at normal levels – meaning less chicken, turkey and ready meals across the UK.
Mr Boparan added: “When poultry cannot be processed it means they must be kept on farms where there are potential implications for animal welfare, so the overall effect is welfare compromised and greatly reduced supply. Ready meals lose that vital shelf life. There is potential for massive food waste across the board.
“This is clearly a national security issue and unlike the labour supply crisis, where the Government response to our sector has been disappointing to say the least, it has to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I’d like to see CO2 supplies prioritised for the food sector so UK supply can be maintained and for the Government to support these fertilizer plants who are saying they’ve switched off because of the rising price of natural gas.
“It really beggars belief when such a key infrastructure operation can arbitrarily decide to switch off the taps because of price inflation. It is irresponsible and catastrophic for our sector. We can’t just down tools because of inflation. In my businesses, you have to roll up your sleeves as best you can and tackle it head on. Giving up and saying ‘inflation is too high’ is not an option.”
In July, Mr Boparan spelled out the current challenges facing his businesses and the wider food and retail sector, including Brexit-related lack of labour, major commodity inflation and the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He says Brexit has acutely reduced available workers across the food sector. 2 Sisters has seen, on average, 10 per cent labour shortages for its 16,000 workforce this year, the majority who work in chicken and ready meal production facilities.
Mr Boparan added: “I do not normally like to intervene in these issues and would rather sort out them out quietly and internally. But I have never quite seen anything like this since I started out in 1992 and someone needs to speak out about this as it is damaging our sector beyond repair.
"It’s tough enough having one hand tied behind our backs by simply not enough people to supply food. With the CO2 on top of this, both hands are tied. Government need to act now or we’ll have another cancelled Christmas.”