MILK PROCESSORS and retailers have come under unprecedented attack from farming organisations after Robert Wiseman Dairies moved one step closer to cutting its December ex-farm milk price.

NFU president Tim Bennett said: “The decision to announce a provisional cut at this moment in time is cynical. This pathetic tit-for-tat approach to milk pricing across the board must come to an end. “This flies in the face of the market that is indicating prices should be increasing, and comes at a time when dairy farmers are facing significant increases in costs.”

Wiseman, whose directors Robert and Alan Wiseman have just made about 14m from the sale of 15% of their stake in the business to co-op First Milk, said it was forced into making the 0.5p/litre cut because competitor Arla Foods had refused to rescind its 0.4p/litre cut from the autumn.

Wiseman said it would reverse the decision if Arla reinstated its reduction by Dec 31, but this seems extremely unlikely.

However, Arla has always claimed that its cut was in response to earlier cuts by Wiseman and Dairy Crest. Arla chief executive Neil Davidson said: “This is just nonsense and game playing. I am becoming quite irritated by this.”

Arla has pledged to hold prices for the remainder of 2004, but Mr Davidson said the firm would have to review its January prices if Wiseman did cut. There will also be pressure on First Milk, which supplies about 40% of Wiseman’s milk. A spokesman said it was on track to hold prices this year and farmers couldn’t absorb further reductions.

John Kinnaird, NFUS president, said he was fed up with the processors’ bickering. “If anybody doubted the poisonous environment that dairy farmers are operating in, they need only look at the ridiculous public statements recently from companies that are supposed to be industry leaders.

“If just a fraction of the effort and resources these companies are currently dedicating to finger pointing was redirected towards ensuring a fair deal for suppliers, we could be much further towards a resolution to this desperate state of affairs.”

David Handley of Farmers for Action said Wiseman”s cut was indefensible and could provoke direct action against the processor or its customers, like Tesco, if it went ahead.

Tesco, however, tried to distance itself from the controversy. A spokesman said: “Clearly we are one step removed from farm-gate prices, however, Wiseman remains the market leader in terms of prices paid to farmers and that is one of the reasons why we chose to increase the volumes it supplies to Tesco.”