It seems like every other week someone gets ill from raw milk. The most recent incident occurred last month in West Michigan, when a 31-year-old woman and a six-year-old girl from different counties fell ill after drinking raw milk from a farm called Green Pastures. The Centers for Disease Control have released updated information on the link between raw milk and outbreaks of E. Coli infections, warning that a record number of such outbreaks were reported between 2010 and 2012.
We have a fraught relationship with raw milk in the US, but elsewhere the routine consumption of raw milk is far more normalized. Raw milk vending machines, for example, have recently been installed all over Europe, allowing unpasteurized dairy fiends to get a fix on the regular. The Middle East is long accustomed to drinking raw milk, and we’re not talking about cows or goats here. There, the milk of the humble dromedary—the camel—is so prized that camel owners often forego drinking the milk themselves, saving it for special occasions or when guests drop by. The Bedouins believe it to have curative powers, and anecdotal evidence seems to support such assertions: some parents of autistic children claim the milk improves sociability and mood in their kids.
Walid Abdul-Wahab believes that raw camel milk packs a double-whammy of good health. The Saudi Arabian native is the founder of Desert Farms, a California-based company that sources raw camel milk from a network of Amish farms in the Midwest (the Amish have a history with raw milk—in 2011, a Pennsylvania farm was raided and its owner accused of smuggling the dairy into Washington, D.C., where its sale was illegal). We caught up with Abdul-Wahab to find out about what’s going on his product.
MUNCHIES: So, why camel milk? Why did you decide to start selling it in the US?
Walid Abdul-Wahab: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where camel milk was ingrained in our culture. In the Middle East it’s used to honor your guests. Then I realized, by reading religious texts, that people felt that it could actually benefit the ill, people with diabetes, with autism. They didn’t mention these diseases by name, but they described their symptoms and all these prophets were recommending camels’ milk. I wanted to try to bring something positive from my home country to the US, when there’s often a barrier of communication between the two countries, and a lot of misconceptions about the Middle East. I also wanted to sell camel milk because of its health benefits—it’s been helping a lot of children with autism.
Yeah, I’ve read about that. How does it help?
There is no scientific research behind this yet so we don’t make any of those kinds of claims. But I can tell you what I’ve heard from people who have tried it. The anti-inflammatory properties are the major factor that helps improve brain function. Anything you consume that’s anti-inflammatory reduces the amount of toxins in found in your gut, and reducing those toxins has a clear effect on the brain. It improves function. That’s why all these autistic children are on very strict diets, particularly gluten-free. Any food that has gluten in creates inflammation, and that’s exactly what you want to avoid.
What does the milk taste like? Camels seem like pretty funky animals.
The milk tastes sweeter than cow’s milk, sometimes quite earthy. It isn’t repulsive at all. It’s a very clean taste, closer to cow’s milk than any other.
Where are these camels that you’re getting the milk from?
All our farms are run by the Amish community, in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. The camels on these farms actually come from Australia. Camels run wild over there—they’re an invasive species—so a couple of years ago these Amish farmers imported them by the thousands.
Why does the Amish community have a monopoly over these camel farms?
The Amish knew about camels’ milk a while before anyone else did. The first farmer in the US to milk a camel, that I know of, was one of our farmers in Missouri. He told the Amish community that it could be a really good source of income, and, if it doesn’t work out, then we’ll have camels for camel rides at Christmas for the living Nativity scenes. It was a win-win situation for them.
So why do you offer raw camels’ milk in addition to pasteurized? Are you concerned about reports linking serious illnesses to the consumption of raw milk?
I believe that raw milk is more nutritious. It all depends on how much you trust the source of the milk—if I were in the middle of the desert and someone offered me camels’ milk and I didn’t know where it came from, I’d rather have pasteurized. But if I trusted the source of the milk and knew exactly where it was coming from, knew how healthy the animal was, and what it was eating, then I’ll drink the raw milk right away. People seem to tolerate the raw milk a lot better than the pasteurized. It makes sense that if you’re heating up milk to the point where you’re killing bacteria, you’re also killing beneficial bacteria. The way most dairy processors are heating their milk is at a ridiculously high temperature. They heat it at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three seconds. But you can heat the milk slowly at a moderate temperature, as we do, which keeps the flavor and the nutrition inside. The way we look at it is that these reports state illnesses in their hundreds within a year, which I see as insignificant when you compare it to something like smoking. It really depends on the treatment of the farm. A lot of these breakouts are because these farms are not inspected. If the government had a system in place for inspecting raw milk farms in the way it does pasteurized milk farms, I don’t think we’d have the same problem.
Given the restrictions that some states have on the sale of raw milk, how does that work for you?
We are not allowed to sell in every state, but what we do offer is a herd share. You basically buy into being a member of the farm, so you’re a part-owner of the camels. If you own the livestock then you can drink it wherever you are. That’s a very common practice in the raw dairy industry. But most of our customers live in states that allow raw milk. California is our biggest state. There, raw milk is legal and we sell in nine locations of the store Lassenes Market. Right now we’re also finalizing a deal with Whole Foods—they’re going to be carrying our pasteurized camel milk at 40 of their stores in northern California.
What’s the deal with the “colostrum” I saw on your website? It sounds intense.
Colostrum is basically the first milk that comes out of the female camel when her baby is born. It’s extra-nutritious, helping to get the new baby healthy and strong as fast as possible. Colostrum has been known for hundreds of years, regardless of the mammal. It’s the ultimate superfood. For us it’s very popular—whenever we get a baby calf we always notify our customers, and within a couple of hours it sells out. It’s our fastest-selling item, and is also very rare—we only get, like, four or five bottles at a time, and that’s reflected in the price—half a bottle costs $40. It’s just milk, so it tastes basically the same as the milk that the mother produces later—a little thicker and more sour—but it’s much darker in color, like a dark yellow.
Wow. Thanks for talking to me, Walid.