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Camel milk: the dairy product of the future

By Anthony Fletcher , 19-Apr-2006

The future for camel milk is so bright that the FAO predicts that the dairy product could appear one day on European supermarket shelves.

But certain structural problems must first be overcome. Although demand from the Sahara to Mongolia is booming, the 5.4 million tonnes produced every year isn't enough to go round.

The FAO is confident however that investment within the sector - not only at local level - can help camel milk meet demand and even move into lucrative markets in the Middle East and the West.

 

The organisation estimates there are an estimated 200 million potential customers in the Arab world and millions more in Africa, Europe and the Americas.

 

"The potential is massive," said FAO dairy and meat expert Anthony Bennett. "Milk is money."

 

Nutrition

 

While slightly saltier than cow's milk, camel milk is highly nutritious. Designed after all for animals that live in some of the roughest environments, it is three times as rich in Vitamin C as cow's milk.

 

In Russia, Kazakhstan and India doctors often prescribe it to convalescing patients. Aside from Vitamin C, it is known to be rich in iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins.

 

Production humps

 

Tapping the market for camel milk, however, involves resolving a series of humps in production, manufacturing and marketing. One problem lies in the milk itself, which has so far not proved to be compatible with the UHT (Ultra High Temperature) treatment needed to make it long lasting.

 

But the main challenge stems from the fact that the producers involved are, overwhelmingly, nomads.

 

Another problem, according to the FAO, is the nature of the animal itself. Camels can reputedly be pretty stubborn. And unlike cows, which store all their milk in their udders, camels keep theirs further up their bodies.

 

The bottom line is that camel milk production is generally a low-tech business, which in turn explains why a meagre five litres a day is considered a decent yield.

 

"No one is suggesting intensive camel dairy farming," said Bennett. "But just with improved feed, husbandry and veterinary care daily yields could rise to 20 litres."

 

Fresh camel milk fetches roughly a dollar a litre on African markets. A world market worth $10 billion, says the FAO, is entirely within the realm of possibility.

 

Solutions

 

Camel constraints can be overcome. FAO says that a British-born engineering graduate, Nancy Abeiderahmanne, has been operating a successful camel dairy in Mauritania for more than 15 years.

 

Abeiderahmanne, whose company also processes cow and goat milk, currently has some 800 camel herders supplying her on daily basis. She collects the fresh milk from up to 80 kilometres from her base, and hauls it back to her dairy for pasteurisation in a refrigerated truck.

 

The herders, while still nomads, have learned it makes business sense to leave their nursing camels behind when they move up north. This ensures a measure of continuity in supplies.

 

Camelbert

 

Another major challenge is that although camel milk keeps longer than cow's, it still has a limited shelf life. One solution is to turn surplus milk into longer-lived cheese. In 1992, the FAO, which had developed the technology to make camel cheese, arranged for a French expert to go to Mauritania to show Abeiderahmanne how to use a special enzyme to give her products the right consistency.

 

The result was a soft cheese quickly dubbed Camelbert. In 1993, Abeiderrahmane received the Rolex business enterprise award for her breakthrough.

 

Camel chocolate

 

An easier sell would appear to be the low-fat, camel milk chocolate, which A Vienna-based chocolatier, Johann Georg Hochleitner intends to launch a low-fat, camel milk chocolate this autumn. With funding from the Abu Dhabi royal family, his company plans to make the chocolate in Austria from powdered camel milk produced at Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, then ship 50 tons back to the Gulf each month.

 

"It sounds crazy but it's a huge project," said Hochleitner. "There's a potential market of 200 million in the Arab world."

 

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