Westcountry dairy farmers have responded with incredulity to the admission by Farming Minister Jim Paice that he did not know the price of milk – because "my wife buys most of it".
His comments came on the eve of a mass protest by dairy farmers over the latest milk price cuts announced by four major dairy processors, which the industry says means many farmers are making a significant loss on every drop of milk they produce.
Andrew Butler, acting regional director of the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said: "It's absolutely incredible that Jim Paice doesn't know the price of milk, because he ought to, even more than any of his Cabinet colleagues. And it's extraordinary that he actually admits it.
"He needs to do his homework by going to Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl, the Co-Op, or Asda – the supermarkets that are evidently sometimes even selling milk for less than they bought it, and well below the cost of production, to steal trade from those other big retailers, who are trying to produce a sustainable price for their farmers."
Mr Butler added: "Mr Paice needs to wake up and take more interest in this crucial issue. Farmers are amazed and appalled at his revelation – even though he was being refreshingly honest for a politician.
"He ought to go out and do his own shopping, then he'll find out what a good bargain fresh milk really is, and realise the opportunity that exists for paying a realistic price."
In an interview Mr Paice said he supported the farmers' decision to go to London for a summit at Westminster, although he warned against more "militant" activity by dairy farmers angry at the new cuts, which follow reductions earlier in the year.
Quizzed on BBC Radio 4's Farming Today programme over whether he knew the price of milk for consumers, he said: "No, because my wife buys it, but I have checked with her where it comes from."
He said their milk was bought from a local supermarket chain which was paying the higher price for milk, or from the corner shop in his village.
Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said: "It turns out that it is not just David Cameron and George Osborne who don't know the price of milk.
"The Farming Minister is completely out of touch with reality too.
"Farmers and consumers will be shocked that he doesn't know the price of milk when people are struggling to pay for their weekly shop and there's a crisis in the dairy industry."
NFU vice-president Adam Quinney said Mr Paice's lack of knowledge reflected what surveys by the union showed – that the average person pre-retirement does not know the price of milk accurately.
"What we're after is making sure we can carry on supplying milk to consumers," said Mr Quinney, who farms in Warwickshire and whose family used to supply much of Birmingham with milk. He warned that unless retailers and processors acted promptly, dairy farmers would leave the industry in droves within months. That would push the price of milk up for consumers in the long run, he warned. He called for Mr Paice to "bang heads together" to ensure farmers received a fair price for their milk and to push back on regulation that added costs to dairy farmers.
The payment cuts followed falls on the international market of the price of cream and butter – but farmers are fed up with contracts that allow retailers and processors to cut payments at will.