A California couple is hoping to put camel's milk on North American menus, but still face several regulatory hurdles.
First, to milk a camel, you need warm hands, a gentle touch and quick timing — camels give milk only in 90-second bursts.
Gil and Nancy Riegler, owners of America's largest camel dairy near San Diego, said the extra work pays off with milk that is therapeutic, nutritious and delicious.
It's also illegal to sell in the United States.
That hasn't stopped the Rieglers' enthusiasm for their unusual dairy, selling other products such as camel milk soap, giving tours and taking their 22-camel herd on the road to educate others.
In a few years, they hope the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might establish a test on camel milk that would allow them to make money in other ways.
"If we could sell camel's milk right now, we would have to charge $40 to $60 a litre," said Nancy Riegler, who lives with her husband on their 34-acre dairy in Ramona, northeast of San Diego.
That's because there are only a few thousand camels in the United States — mostly at zoos and wild animal parks — and few of them are breeding, which makes camel milk a rare commodity.
It costs about $12,000 to buy an adult female camel, and $5,000 for a baby.
'Research is also ongoing into the role claimed for camel milk in reducing diabetes and coronary heart disease' —Anthony Bennett, United Nations dairy officer
Still, the Rieglers are sold on what they say are the benefits of camel milk over cow milk. They said it has more vitamin C, more anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties and contains an insulin-like protein that works well in the digestive tract.
Most camel milk is traded informally around the world, but in the future it could be worth roughly $10 billion ($7.8 billion Cdn), said Anthony Bennett, dairy officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
"In Russia, Kazakhstan and India, doctors often prescribe it to convalescing patients while, in Africa, it may be recommended for people living with AIDS," Bennett said. "Research is also ongoing into the role claimed for camel milk in reducing diabetes and coronary heart disease."
Not Milk? How about chocolate
The FDA allows people to drink camel milk, but it can't be imported or sold in the U.S. until a test for drug residues is validated, said FDA spokesman Michael Herndon.
That could take a while, Herndon said, noting water buffalo milk was allowed in 2003 but it took another six years before all the tests were validated and accepted.
Can't wait? A Dubai company offers a camel milk chocolate bar, but it sells at a San Francisco shop for $12 for just 70 grams.
Despite the price, shop owner Jack Epstein said the camel bar is a steady seller. He favours it over bars made with milk from goat and sheep.
"The camel milk doesn't have any kind of earthy taste," said Epstein, owner of Jack Epstein's Covered Chocolate. "In fact, it seems a little caramelly."
Experts caution, though, against expecting a boom in camel milk sales, in part because they produce so little milk.
A cow produces about 25 litres of milk a day while the Rieglers are lucky to get three litres from one of their camels.
"Camels are the most adaptive hoofstock on the planet, but they are not designed for bulk production," said Rod Owlett, an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo. "Cows have been specifically bred for giving vast amounts of milk."
Until the FDA approves camel milk sales, the Rieglers are finding other ways to make a living — he cuts gems and she shows birds. Together they do monthly open houses, offer camel rides, fair exhibits, private parties, turkey stampedes and school visits.
They bought their first dairy camels — a bull and two females from a private owner in Indiana — in 2001, then spent a month training on a camel dairy in Israel. "We got up every day and helped them milk their camels," Nancy Riegler said.
"It was like nothing in America. But we were stepping in and doing what those camels already knew," she said. "Our camels didn't know what we wanted them to do. We went slow and the training worked out great for us and the camels."