- Associated Press - Sunday, July 18, 2010

LOS ANGELES | 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 the nation’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 U.S.

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 liter,” said Mrs. 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 U.S. - 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.

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 insulinlike 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, 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,” he said. “Research is also ongoing into the role claimed for camel milk in reducing diabetes and coronary heart disease.”

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, he 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 2.5 ounces.

Despite the price, shop owner Jack Epstein said the camel bar is a steady seller. He favors it over bars made with milk from goat and sheep.

“The camel milk doesn’t have any kind of earthy taste,” said Mr. Epstein, owner of Jack Epstein’s Covered Chocolate. “In fact, it seems a little caramelly.”

Experts caution, though, against expecting a boom in U.S. camel milk sales, in part because they produce so little milk.

A cow produces six or seven gallons of milk a day while the Rieglers are lucky to get a gallon a day 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.”

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