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Current Shortages of Food Grade Carbon Dioxide for the Food and Beverage Industry

Thursday, 21 June 2018

There is currently a shortage of carbon dioxide throughout Europe, which is likely to impact on the food and beverage industry in Ireland. The purpose of this note is to highlight the food safety issues which might arise as food business operators (FBOs) try to manage their carbon dioxide supply. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas that 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).

Carbon dioxide is a potential source of contamination of food. Therefore, carbon dioxide used in food or in contact with food must be fit for purpose; often described as ‘food grade’. The European Industrial Gas Association has a useful publication which describes the specification and testing of carbon dioxide that is suitable for food use.

The use of carbon dioxide as a packaging gas is covered by the food additives legislation (Commission Regulation (EC) 1333/2008). All food additives including carbon dioxide (E290) must comply with specific purity criteria/specifications which are laid down for their use in Commission Regulation (EU) No. 231/2012 as amended.

In the current shortage situation, FBOs should not seek to substitute lower grade carbon dioxide for ‘food grade’ carbon dioxide that, as a minimum, meets legal purity criteria. Although carbon dioxide in packaging is not directly added to food, it dissolves in water in the food on storage and any contaminants will become incorporated into the food.

Carbon dioxide is used in MAP to extend shelf-life. In general, carbon dioxide alone or a high carbon dioxide component mixed gas is used to extend the shelf-life of foods that are low in fat, with high water content. In contrast, other gases like nitrogen are used as packaging gas in foods that are high in fat, with low water content. Part of the preservative action of carbon dioxide in MAP is its ability to dissolve in the water associated with, or contained in the food, where it forms carbonic acid and lowers pH. This has effects on colour of the food e.g. meat, and also reduces the growth rate of bacteria/fungi in combination with the low/no oxygen atmosphere of the pack.

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. 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.

FBOs are reminded of their obligation under the general food law (Regulation 178/2002 Article 14) to place only safe food on the market.

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