Experts have warned of a threat to animal welfare as swindling CO2 stocks leave the poultry industry facing overcrowded chicken farms.
The gas is used for stunning chickens before slaughter and packing meats, but supplies have run low after two fertiliser plants were closed by the US company CF industries.
Ministers have been in talks with CF boss Tony Will about reopening the sites, which could mean subsidising fertiliser production.
Two sources told the Financial Times that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs hopes to announce a deal soon.
The plants will take about three days to return to normal production levels once they restart.
This means there is a narrow window in which to avoid chicken supply disruption and overcrowded farms.
“It’s not just a food issue, it’s an animal welfare issue,” Food and Drink Federation head Ian Wright said.
If plants returned to full production this week, “it’s quite likely that… shoppers wouldn’t notice much, though there will be some gaps on shelves”.
However, a longer hiatus would mean severe disruption, he claimed.
British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said some companies had reactivated old electrical stunning equipment, which processes birds around 30 per cent more slowly.
“But not everyone has the kit and not everyone has the people trained to operate it,” he added.
The head of a supermarket said that while some suppliers had downplayed the gas shortages, others are “down to their last few days”.
Another grocer said the problem was “tight but manageable”, though it was making plans with suppliers for alternative gases in meat and bread packaging.
Many processors are thought to be looking to Europe for CO2, though it would increase costs to drive gas tankers to the UK.
“Disruption to CO2 supplies could not have come at a worse time,” British Retail Consortium food director Andrew Opie said.
“The shortfall of 90,000 HGV drivers [is] already putting severe pressure on food production and distribution.”
Last month, Nando’s and KFC were forced to close restaurants after the lack of delivery drivers left them short of chicken.