Over the hump: Dubai camel dairy pushes Camelicious milk toward world markets

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The camels know the drill by heart.

Just after dawn, they file on their own — always in groups of 12 — into metal stalls for milking. Workers attach automated pumps. The milk flows into a system of chilled pipes that empty into a sealed metal vat.

The next stop someday could be markets in Europe, and possibly beyond, under ambitious plans backed by Dubai's ruler to expand the reach of the playfully eccentric brand name Camelicious.

European Union health regulators in July cleared the United Arab Emirates to become the first major exporter of camel milk products to the 27-nation bloc. If onsite inspections and other EU tests pass muster, the first batches of powdered camel milk could be heading to European shelves next year — and at some point possibly to Asia and America.

"We know this isn't what you'd call a mainstream product in the West," said David Wernery, legal adviser for the Camelicious brand, whose parent company goes by the more staid name of Emirates Industry for Camel Milk & Products. "We're thinking about health food stores and alternative markets. It's probably going to be a niche thing at first."

It would be something of a coming-out party for the small but passionate community that describes camel milk in awed tones.

It has at least three times more vitamin C than cow's milk and is considered an alternative for the lactose-intolerant. Researchers have studied possible roles for camel milk in fighting bacteria, tumors and diabetes, as well as traditional uses such as a treatment for liver disease across the range from central Asia to North Africa.

For Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a Camelicious foothold in Europe would mark a pet project growing up.

Wernery's veterinarian father, Ulrich, made a pitch about a camel dairy to Sheik Mohammed a decade ago.

"I told him, 'You race camels. Why not milk them?'" said the elder Wernery, who first became enamored with camels while working in Somalia in the 1970s.

The sheik didn't give an immediate answer. So Wernery went ahead and created a small pilot dairy in 2000 with about a dozen camels outside his research and animal care clinic in Dubai. Three years later, the Sheik Mohammed called. He was ready to fund the dairy.

At the time, Dubai's growth was starting to swallow up the desert in huge bites. Sheik Mohammed has always liked the bold stroke. Being patron to the region's first modern camel farm fit nicely as a sideline venture.

David Wernery and his mother cooked up the name Camelicious. Their initial worry: That the "normal customer" might find camel milk, well, "disgusting."

"Hopefully (this was) negated by the reference to delicious," he said.

The company, which began operations in 2006, quickly stood out on the dairy shelves with its logo: a bug-eyed cartoon camel with violet-hued sunglasses. And new flavors were added — now up to chocolate, saffron, date, strawberry. Its official corporate image, a camel silhouette under a sliver moon, is on its other products, including camel milk chocolates and laban, a traditional yogurt drink.

"We're still doing market surveys in Europe," said David Wernery. "We really like the cartoon camel logo, but we wonder if that's the right image for a health food product. We're still working on it."

Then there's the taste. The milk from camels eating the desert brush can have a slightly salty flavor. The Camelicious herd gets hay and treats of carrots and dates — which all serve to soften the taste for more Western palates.

"They eat anything," said David Wernery. "They are very, very easygoing. And smart, too."

Really? The lumbering "ships of the desert" are not as cloddish as they seem?

Not according to the elder Wernery, who is a walking encyclopedia of all things camel after decades of research and observation. His view: Camel society has a quiet dignity and order. At least for the ladies.

"Shhh," said Ulrich Wernery one morning as he watched the female camels stride in for milking. "They really don't like sudden movements or loud noises."

The camels pick their own leader and always follow the "alpha camel" into the milking pens. They also always file in the same order.

The average camel produces about 2.6 gallons (10 liters) of milk a day — lower than the cows from major Western diaries that can give five or more gallons (nearly 19 liters). The imported Saudi and Sudanese camels, however, are typically better at milk production. The Gulf camels have been bred for speed for racing instead of milking over the ages.

The 700 camels being milked at the Camelicious dairy on Dubai's outskirts give about 5,000 liters (1,321 gallons) liters a day. Some is bottled for local markets, and smaller amounts are freeze-dried into a just-add-water powder for chocolate production. This is also how Camelicious plans to ship to the European market.

"Sure, we've given some thought to maybe one day having a camel dairy in Europe — a place like southern Spain perhaps," said David Wernery. "

But that is far down the road. Right now, we're just concentrating on our plans to get a foothold in the export market." That also requires more camels.

Buyers for the dairy often turn up in camel markets across the Middle East and North Africa. They try to keep a low profile, however. It's hard to bargain for a good price once it's known they have the backing of Dubai's Sheik Mohammed. (A second, rival camel dairy in the Emirates has no current plans for export.)

"We just want to spread the news about camel milk," said the younger Wernery, whose office is around the corner from two skeletons of the one-humped local camel and its two-hump cousin in central Asia. "We think people will be pleasantly surprised."

They already have an ally in America.

From North Carolina, a natural medicine practitioner, Millie Hinkle, has carved out a role as a leading advocate for camel dairy farming. The latest step for her Camel Milk USA was to help win federal approval for test kits to test camels for diseases such as tuberculosis.

Hinkle estimates there are more than a dozen small camel dairies across the United States, with interest even being shown by traditional Amish farmers. She knows well that camel milk is truly the fringe of the fringe for American consumers. But so was sushi and kiwi fruit at one time.

"We are still so in kindergarten with camels," she said. "Give it time."