More Europeans could soon discover the joys of camel milk following studies suggesting the Arabian variety of the animal is resistant to foot-and-mouth disease. The EU has banned imports of dairy and other animal products from the UAE because, like many countries in the region, it is not free of the virulent virus.
But an exception could be made for camel products, after studies conducted in Dubai showed that one-humped, dromedary camels are resistant to the virus and do not pass on the infection. The discovery raises the possibility that some UAE companies could eventually be allowed to export their camel products to European countries - and their various immigrant communities - notably by marketing the animal's milk as a healthier alternative to cow's milk.
The four years of research by the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory was conducted in collaboration with British experts on the disease. The Government has previously petitioned the EU to reconsider its ban on imports of UAE animal products. Although a traditional staple food for the UAE's population, camel milk is almost unheard of in Europe. Two companies sell camel milk on a large scale in the UAE. CVRL, together with the Emirates Industry for Camel Milk and Products, is behind the Camelicious line launched almost two years ago. The brand sells pasteurised milk - plain and in date, saffron and strawberry flavours - as well as sour milk, known as laban. There is also Al Ain dairy, which has been selling pasteurised camel milk for more than six years.
Professor Dr Ulrich Wernery, CVRL's scientific director, said that three trials were carried out in which 15 camels were infected with twice the dose of foot-and-mouth virus encountered in nature. Next to the camels were kept sheep - an animal susceptible to the disease - and another group of dromedaries, to test if the infection would spread. The results were astonishing, said Mr Wernery. "None of the animals developed lesions and none of them produced antibodies," he said. "They were completely resistant.
"All the animals which were running together with the infected camels stayed healthy. "This is very important for us if we are to export camel products - milk, milk powder and later even meat." Mr Wernery, who himself swears by the product, said that camel milk was lower in sugar, lactose and fat compared to cow's milk. It has up to two per cent fat content, while cow's milk has up to 4.5 per cent.
On the other hand, camel milk is higher in potassium, iron and Vitamin C compared to cow's milk. It is also 40 per cent lower in cholesterol. It also has a high mineral content, with sodium, magnesium and possibly iodine all present. Camel milk also acts as a natural probiotic, assisting the growth of "good" bacteria in the gut. However, the test showed that only one-hump camels were resistant. Two-humped Bactrian camels, injected with the virus soon developed symptoms. "They became very sick and developed severe foot lesions," said Mr Wernery.
There are around 18 million one-humped camels in the world, and 1.4 million two-humped camels. Foot-and-mouth disease has severe repercussions for livestock farmers as infected animals have to be slaughtered. Although most animals survive the disease, they would still carry the virus for two years. In addition to being a threat to healthy animals, those who have suffered the disease produce significantly lower amounts of milk. An outbreak in 2001 in the UK resulted in seven million animals being slaughtered.
The CVRL research was released last month in Epidemiology and Infection, a prestigious scientific journal published by Cambridge University Press, and the UAE has submitted two volumes of documents on camel farming to the EU, said Mr Wernery. Once the documents are reviewed, a committee of European inspectors could arrive in the country. The procedure, he said, was set to be a lengthy one. "It will take another two years but the ball is now rolling," said Mr Wernery.
But he hoped that, in time, camel product exports could spread beyond the EU. "In Canada alone, there are 100,000 Somalis and they all want to drink camel milk," he said. However, it is unclear whether Europeans would take to the idea. "Camels are smelly, unhygienic animals that spit," said one Briton living in Abu Dhabi. "I can't see their milk making it to the breakfast tables of Europe. Then again, we eat lots of taramasalata, so who knows?"