bEre and meat lovers may have a hard time getting their hands on their favorite products this fall. That’s because the U.S. has a shortage of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is causing complications for a number of breweries and food vendors across the country.
Food and beverage companies such as Tyson and Kraft Heinz, are struggling to find suppliers of the gas used to carbonate drinks and freeze frozen meats and pizzas. Some local breweries have even had to shut down their facilities due to the shortage — which could mean fewer jobs and higher beer prices.
What causes the lack of carbon dioxide
A number of factors have led to the current situation, but CO2 plant maintenance shutdowns and general summer beverage demand are the most likely culprits, according to the Brewers Association, a US trade group.
“While many of the specific issues in the market are new, CO2 has faced various supply chain challenges since the start of the pandemic,” the Brewers Association said in a statement. “This is one of many areas where small brewers are facing increasing costs and availability issues.”
Some analysts also attribute the current density in part to contamination at the Jackson Dome carbon dioxide well, an extinct volcano in Mississippi, earlier this summer. Denbury Energy, the owner of the site, attempted to drill new CO2 wells to fulfill its industrial contracts, but the CO2 reportedly contained contaminants, according to Gasworld.
Denbury said pollution is a “minor problem” in a statement to TIME.
“The CO2 produced at Jackson Dome has been and is being produced within all regulatory requirements and the composition of the delivered CO2 continues to meet contract specifications,” it said.
“We are working with some of our customers, such as food and beverage quality requirements, to address processing issues that exist in their distribution chains. Our customers get all the CO2 they want.”
A shortage of drivers makes gas deliveries even more difficult, the Brewers Association says, especially for local deliveries. Many of the supply challenges, he said, are worse in the Southeast, but reports of CO2 shortages and quality issues have been reported across the U.S. since midsummer.
The Compressed Gas Association, another US industry trade group, does not expect to see relief until at least October, when scheduled maintenance on CO2 industrial facilities is expected to end.
Brewers are under pressure
The beer industry has been particularly hard hit by the shortage, forcing some smaller breweries to consider raising their prices to offset rising costs and stay in business. Some are even experimenting with alternatives to CO2, such as nitrogen.
“We’re constantly using CO2,” Brian Van Den Over, owner of Red Bear Brewing Company in Washington, D.C., told TIME. “Our supplier has advised us that they are not accepting new customers … but at some point they may come to us and say they can’t meet our needs, which is worrying as beer is our main product.”
“There was a surcharge on all the CO2 that our supplier just sent us recently,” he added.
When Night Shift Brewing in Everett, Massachusetts learned that its CO2 supply had been cut for the foreseeable future, twelve employees were told their jobs could be cut as the brewery shifted production to another source. “Our plan was to continue troubleshooting, but this latest CO2 issue has effectively thrown a huge wrench into every one of those plans — threatening even immediate production,” wrote Night Shift Brewing in statement posted on Facebook in July.
For craft breweries, additional CO2 is often added to the beer during the fermentation process, in the tap room to push beer through the lines to the glasses, and when beer is placed in cans. Van Den Oever says that if the shortage worsens, his brewery may have to use nitrogen in the fermentation tank instead of CO2, although that is the worst-case scenario. Nitro beer often has less carbonation, which gives it a smoother and creamier texture, meaning IPAs and pilsners can have different flavors.
Some larger breweries are able to capture CO2 from beer production and reuse it, but this is not an option for smaller breweries as the equipment is expensive and can take up a lot of space.
Other food and beverage industries also rely on CO2
The CO2 shortage doesn’t just affect the beer industry: the gas is commonly used in almost everything we consume. In addition to creating noise in drinks, it helps to quickly cool food that will be frozen. Carbon dioxide is even used to make dry ice and can be used to slaughter animals humanely.
Fresh meat may also be available in smaller quantities at local grocery stores. The Wall Street Journal reported that Tyson and Butterball were among the companies affected by the CO2 shortage. Cold cuts that are preserved with CO2 and other gases can also take a hit. Modified atmosphere packaging removes oxygen and pumps in CO2 to give products a longer shelf life, but companies such as Kraft Heinz have warned retailers of potential shortages of turkey and bologna because of the shortage. Kraft Heinz did not respond to a request for comment.
Frozen foods, such as vegetables and pizzas, also use CO2 for enhanced freezing and preservation to prevent bacterial growth.
For producers unable to find alternative sources, the next few months may be difficult. “We hope the shortage will be resolved, but it doesn’t look like that will happen at least in the fall,” says Van Den Over. “So it’s just an ongoing thing that we’re going to deal with.”
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