A bitter war of words has erupted between Farmers for Action (FFA) and the NFU over a milk price protest which shut down a Meadow Foods processing plant.
About 60 dairy farmers battled winds up to 70mph to blockade a Meadow Foods site in Chester on Tuesday night (17 November).
Protesters were incensed when three Polish tankers entered the site. But Meadow Foods said the vehicles were used to export concentrated skimmed milk to the Continent, rather than importing cut-price milk from abroad.
FFA chairman David Handley said his organisation staged the peaceful protest because dairy farmers felt Meadow Foods could afford to pay farmers more for their milk.
Currently, the dairy processor pays farmers 19p/litre for their milk on an A&B contract, which is well below the cost of production of about 31p/litre.
Mr Handley said: “Meadow Foods is a very large-scale business and a profitable one. It has just announced a new brand, which I commend them for.
“But I’m convinced that Meadow Foods could afford to pay more to dairy farmers who supply their milk. This is a company which is not signed up to the voluntary code and dairy farmers are being brought to their knees.”
In a statement, FFA claimed the NFU had decided not to take part in the protest because Meadow Foods had told them that raising prices would see some producers in Cumbria lose their milk contracts.
But the NFU denied the claims and a spokesman for Meadow Foods said the FFA war “irresponsible”, adding that the company had “no plans to tear up contracts”.
“We cannot put the milk price up – if we could, we would,” said the spokesman. “We’re paying the price that we are realising from the market.”
The FFA accused Meadow Foods of using “bullying tactics” and questioned why the NFU had not supported direct action on this occasion.
Sian Davies, NFU chief dairy adviser, said the union would continue to support peaceful, targeted protests with clear objectives.
But she added: “The reason we decided not to support the protest was because we only found out about it on Monday when a post appeared on the FFA website to say Mr Handley was meeting at the Holiday Inn in Chester.
“We didn’t know the plan and the reason for that protest. We couldn’t even decide if we agreed with it or not because we knew nothing about it.”
Ms Davies described Meadow Foods’ milk price as “bad”, but said other processors were also not paying sustainable prices.
“Everybody is suffering at the moment,” she added. “If we find that they (Meadows Foods) are taking advantage of the current situation, we will deal with it.
“Different organisations deal with things in different ways. We feel it is better to discuss it with them.”