Ethanol shortages may affect the shelf life of packaged foods

20 May 2020

As demand for fuel has collapsed during the pandemic, so too has ethanol production – which is blended into gasoline – and its byproduct CO2. Due to CO2’s integral role in food production, fears about a shortage of carbon dioxide have spurred predictions of reduced meat, beer and soda inventories.

According to data from the American Farm Bureau Federation and cited by Reuters, the food and beverage sector uses 40% of commercial carbon dioxide. As ethanol plants are the largest sellers of the commodity, the fact that two-thirds of U.S. plants have shuttered poses a large problem for the industry.

Ethanol shortages may affect the shelf life of packaged foods

Carbon dioxide is a common gas used in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). It is often used in combination with nitrogen gas to inhibit the development of aerobic microorganisms. Studies have shown that packaging that uses higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in MAP can extend product shelf-life by 50 – 200%. However, altering the mix of gas, even slightly, can have significant impacts to shelf life.

Meat processors – who are already suffering as a result of rampant COVID-19 diagnoses in meatpacking facilities – are dependent on CO2 to process, package, preserve and ship their products. Raw and cooked meat are generally packed with a 25-40% proportion of carbon dioxide in the MAP gas mixture, according to research firm Campden BRI. Such a high percentage serves to inhibit microorganism growth, which is essential to providing safe products to consumers.

Carbon dioxide is also used in the meat industry as a refrigerant and a method to stun animals prior to their slaughter.

A reduction in the availability of CO2 will not only affect the ability of the food industry to guarantee the stable preservation of products, but it will also affect the beer industry. Reuters reported that CO2 prices for brewers had increased 25% by mid-April and carbonation supplies could continue to dwindle.

In response to these shortages, the Compressed Gas Association, in collaboration with the North American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Brewers Association, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence requesting emergency federal assistance in order restart manufacturing plants that contribute to CO2 production. The lobbying group called the production of CO2 “essential critical infrastructure” and said, “Without stable sources of CO2 across the nation, these food and beverage manufacturers will be unable to operate at capacity, leading to shortages for Americans of the important goods they depend on, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.”

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