The Partners in Cheese project, lead by Dutch entrepreneur Ronald Akkerman, seemed to be foundering last month because dairy farmers refused to commit their milk. But thanks to talks brokered by Asda, Akkerman met Cumbrian milk suppliers and cheese wholesaler Bradbury's before Christmas.
Asda played down the move, with a spokesman saying it was just a question of passing round a few phone numbers. "We always look at new business opportunities," he said.
But others said support from the retailer would provide a shot in the arm for Akkerman. It is particularly galling for dairy co-op First Milk, which has just spent £62m to acquire Asda's own-label cheese business through the purchase of Dairy Crest's Aspatria and Haverfordwest creameries.
Many of the farmers supplying Aspatria have yet to renew their contracts with First Milk and are being courted by Akkerman, but First Milk insisted it was relaxed about the news and had a good relationship with Asda. "We're working closely together on a supply pool for the Aspatria site and an NPD programme," said a spokesman.
First Milk had considered the idea of a new-build cheese plant but decided it was too risky and had chosen instead to acquire an exisiting one, said boss Peter Humphries.
"This decision was supported by the failures of companies who built on greenfield sites without customer bases."
Humphries is due to talk at a conference about the need for Aspatria suppliers to make their minds up by 10 January. Akkerman claims that with the support of Bradbury's, he has a guaranteed customer for the plant.