Dubai camel dairy milks health food market
Still a few humps to get over for Camelicious brand to hit Europe stores; Asia, U.S. may follow
Photos: Camel milk gains traction
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 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 cleared the United Arab Emirates in July 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 did not 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, Sheik Mohammed called. He was ready to finance 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.
Building a brand
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 is 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, all of 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?