Camels – those ‘ships of the desert’ more usually associated with the Arabian Peninsula, Kazakhstan, or Somalia – are now to be sighted grazing the verdant rolling hills of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home to the largest Amish settlements east of the Mississippi. Yes, welcome to the arguably weird world of camel farming…
…camel milk is being heralded as the new superfood kid on the block.
Dromedary dairies? Camel creamer? Wait, let’s back up for a moment! It certainly seems that every time we browse the grocery store shelves we find more options for creamy liquids to pour over our cereal or splash into a morning cup of coffee. From heart-healthy hemp to protein-packed pea or cringe-worthy cockroach (yes, you already knew we had to go there!) specialty milks are giving the standard gallon of bovine lactation a run for its money, jockeying for position and popularity within the chill cabinet. And now there is another. With a nutritional profile that far exceeds that to which dairy drinkers are accustomed, camel milk is being heralded as the new superfood kid on the block.
Devoid of whey proteins – a major allergen and bane of the lactose intolerant among us – camel milk has a surprisingly nutritious profile according to an article published in the The Washington Post.(1) Just one cup offers 70% of the daily recommended intake of vitamin B1, 30% of our daily calcium, significant levels of zinc and vitamin E, five times the calcium of dairy milk, ten times the iron of its bovine counterpart, and more selenium than a certain World Cup soccer team could shake their nuts at.(2) In addition, lanolin and elastin offer anti-aging properties and a natural pro-biotic is said to support the development of gut bacteria and promote digestion.(3) But all of that health-enhancing, macro-nutrient denseness comes at a price. Again according to The Washington Post, a 6-pack of 8oz bottles comes in at a whopping $60. And that does not even include shipping. Time for foodies to start dipping into their rainy day savings accounts…
But in addition to the steep financial cost of purchasing camel milk for drinking, there may also be a health/environmental price to be paid too.
According to a paper published by lead author Gaukhar Konuspayeva of the Al Farabi Kazakh National University of Kazakhstan et al, in the Journal of Environmental Protection, an analysis of both raw and fermented camel milk collected from regions of Kazakhstan where camel milking is a major part of the economy revealed elevated levels of organic pollutants and heavy metals. The study sampled raw milks and fermented milk products (‘shubat’) from 24 farms in 4 regions and included animals belonging to dromedaries (one hump), Bactrians (two humps), and hybrids of both. Using gas chromatography, the organic pollutants were identified as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the latter of which have been identified as ‘probable’ carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, raising levels, as they do, of melanomas, cancers of the gall bladder, liver, and the GI tract, along with breast and brain cancer.
…you are forgiven for thinking that the expensive bottle of organic camel milk is now looking a little less appetizing.
Alongside testing for organic pollutants, Konuspayeva’s team also developed a two-step analysis of heavy metal contamination within the samples. Although results varied by region, destroying the organic matter in the compounds’ mineralization by wet oxidation prevented a loss of volatile elements and a more precise analysis, achieved using Inductively Coupled argon Plasma (ICP) methods including sampling through an ICP – Atomic Emission Spectrometer and a Varian Vista MPX-CCD. Using both optical and wavelength analysis via spectrophotometric techniques, the energy wavelengths emitted by electrons during stimulation using high temperature Argon Plasma were recorded. Charting both the wavelengths and the intensities of the energy emitted allowed researchers to determine not only which heavy metal elements were present but also the quantities thereof. And in samples from each region, a range of both organic compounds and heavy metals such as copper, zinc, lead, and cadmium were established. And the analysis became still more concerning when researchers factored in the presence of radionuclides, albeit at a lower transfer rate in milk to that in dromedary meat. Organic pollutants, heavy metal toxicity, and detectable radiological activity: you are forgiven for thinking that the expensive bottle of organic camel milk is now looking a little less appetizing.
Having established the presence of these ‘probable’ carcinogens and other contaminants, the question remains as to how they came to be in the milk. The answer to that conundrum is actually relatively clear: the broad sampling of raw milks and fermented products included geographical areas across southern Kazakhstan – the regions (‘oblasts’) of Atyrau, South-Kazakhstan, Almaty, and Kyzylorda. All of these oblasts now play host to myriad heavy manufacturing industries with some also having been used in the past by the ex-Soviet Union for nuclear testing purposes.
But if environmental contamination via heavy metals and organic compounds were not enough, there’s also the risk of bacterial and coliform contamination in dromedary milk. Moving away from Kazakhstan to the Ethiopian Somali region, lead author Tsegalem Abera of the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Public Health of Jigiga University, Ethiopia, and his team analyzed 126 milk samples for total bacterial counts (TBC) and coliform counts (CC), reporting their findings in the always readable paper ‘Bacterial quality of raw camel milk along the market value chain in Fafen zone, Ethiopian Somali regional state,’ cataloged by the NIH’s U. S. Library of Medicine.(4) And it makes for rather sorry reading:
‘The overall mean TBC and CC of contaminated raw camel milk samples was 4.75 ± 0.17 and 4.03 ± 0.26 log CFU/ml, respectively. TBC increased from udder to market level and was higher in Gursum compared to Babile district (P < 0.05). Around 38.9 % of TBCs and 88.2 % CCs in contaminated raw camel milk samples were in the range considered unsafe for human utility. Staphylococcus spp. (89.8 %), Streptococcus spp. (53.7 %), E. coli (31.5 %), Salmonella spp. (17.6 %), Klebsiella spp. (5.6 %) and Enterobacter spp. (5.6 %) were the major bacterial microorganisms isolated.’(5)
To cut to the chase: almost 86% of the samples were found to have significant bacterial contamination considered injurious to human health.(6)
When viewed in conjunction with the Kazakhstanian contamination, this is a very significant finding. Looking at a map of the area, Kazakhstan is relatively close to China, a major consumer of imported milk and infant formula. Bordering the south of Russia and the northwestern border of China, Kazakhstan is ideally situated to take advantage of the continued distrust Chinese consumers have in domestic food safety. Following the 2008 tainted infant formula scandal that killed six babies, a survey of more than 10,000 consumers demonstrated a marked preference for foreign brand baby formula, leading the head of the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) to view the more stringent regulation of milk powder as one of the most critical issues facing the agency.(7) And although this domestic mistrust would seem to be a vector for opening up the international market for Kazahkstan, the elevated levels of toxins and contamination in camel products may lead China to look further afield than to its close neighbor for trade.
But that’s not necessarily good news for our Amish camel herders either,
many of whom belong to a network of independent agricultural communities brought together by Desert Farms Inc. founder and CEO Whalid Abdul-Wahab. Desert Farms Inc., which is based in Santa Monica, CA, is an enterprise that contracts with raw camel milk producers across the country with the aim of growing consumer recognition and demand for dromedary lacteal secretions. But the company, founded in 2014, has already drawn the attention of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – and not in a positive way. In a warning letter issued by the agency, Desert Farms has been accused of violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act insofar as its website claims posit advertised products as drugs rather than foods. Furthermore, these ‘drugs’ are not accredited by the FDA as ‘generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) under section 201(p) of the Act and their marketing as such, along with their interstate delivery, contravenes additional sections of the Act.
So if we are ruling out the large producers in Kazakhstan and the boutique dairies here in the U. S., where should aspiring consumers go to access camel milk products?
Perhaps it’s time to look to an area that arguably has one of the longest histories of camel herding: the Arabian Peninsula. With human habitation and agriculture dating back to prehistory, the area that is now the United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven sheikdoms, of which Dubai is one. And for more than 35 years, dromedary milking has been a burgeoning industry there, although it was not formalized until the establishment of the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products (EICMP) in 2003 and its proprietary brand, Camelicious, which emerged in 2006. Like producers in Kazakhstan, Camelicious leveraged the strong heritage of camel milk consumption in the region and set its sights on expansion to both Asia and the European Union. But unlike the problem producers discussed above, the company – which claims to be the world’s first camel milk production facility – is using a high level of contamination control processes and protocols to ensure success. Growing its herd from 4600 to a projected 10,000 animals, the research facility is the first of its kind to receive both EU Commission approval for export, for example. It has also received ISO 22000 certification for its farm and its dairy processing plant, and agencies such as the FDA have acknowledged the implementation of comprehensive Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols.(8)
So it seems that Camelicious is making a lot of the right moves. Which could be the reason it enjoyed success at this year’s Gulfood mega show at the Dubai World Trade Center. Billed as the world’s ‘largest annual food and beverage trade event,’ Gulfood 2018 was attended by more than 97,000 visitors from 185 countries in a 1 million square feet exhibition space.(9) And not only did Camelicious impress some potential business partners, it also succeeded in debuting the first instant baby milk product – effectively offering a radical new formula to a global market wary of contamination and allergy concerns but which is worth an estimated tens of billion of dollars annually.(10)
Will camel milk be hitting our shelves anytime soon?
Possibly. According to a February article in CNN Money, the European approval on products for import in 2013 has led the current U. S. administration to welcome the beverage from Dubai.(11) Will it be a hit? That’s a whole other question. But oftentimes it can be the most bizarre foodstuffs that get us over ‘humpday’ (you knew we had to say that!) – just ask the cockroach milk aficionados…
Camel or cockroach – do you have a preference for the milk you put in your cup of joe? We’d love to know! Please weigh in in the comments!
- Brazil nuts. Brazil.