Page last updated at 13:19 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 14:19 UK

Dutch camel farm gains credibility

By Paul Henley
BBC News, Cromvoirt


The BBC's Paul Henley tastes fresh camel milk

The Bedouin of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula have long been convinced that the milk of camels can cure almost any internal disease, driving bacteria from the body.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reports that doctors in parts of Russia and Kazakhstan often prescribe it to convalescing patients.

In India, camel milk is used therapeutically against jaundice, tuberculosis, asthma, anaemia and piles.

And there is some evidence of a much-reduced incidence of diabetes in parts of the country where it is regularly drunk.

European health food?

In the Netherlands, proving the veracity of such claims to a sceptical European audience has become a family concern.

When 26-year-old Frank Smits became Europe's first commercial camel farmer, his father, Marcel, a neurologist at Gelderse Vallei Hospital in Ede, decided to help the cause by recruiting his medical colleagues to look into some of the alleged health benefits of his son's product.

Marcel Smits
We have also found evidence that diabetics feel better when they are regularly drinking camel milk
Dr Marcel Smits

Three years down the line, Dr Smits has attracted enough interest and credibility for his research to win funding from the local health authority and nearby Wageningen University.

"I think this milk does have some potential to become a new health food in Europe, but I prefer health food when it's proven scientifically," he said. "And that's what we are trying to do.

"For example, we did a study with diabetic patients, involving giving them half a litre of either cow or camel milk here in the hospital, starting early in the morning and monitoring their blood sugar level every 30 minutes for three hours."

The patients were not told whether they had drunk milk from a cow or a camel, said Dr Smits, adding that the the full results from the tests would be available at the beginning of next year.

"In the meantime, we are starting a bigger study, lasting three months, with up to 200 diabetic patients and we would not be commissioning such a study if the results of the first research had not been encouraging," said Dr Smits.

"We have also found evidence that diabetics feel better when they are regularly drinking camel milk, that their quality of life seems to improve.

"I don't know if this is only the influence on the diabetes or if it is also other aspects of camel milk which improve well-being. And that is also one of the things we are looking into."

Importing problems

Frank Smits set up the farm in 2006, on land near his student halls of residence in Cromvoirt, with three camels imported from the Canary Islands.

He now has 40 animals, not enough of which are yet old enough to produce milk to give him the quantities he needs to move into profit.

"I read about the health-giving properties of camel milk," he said. "And I thought 'why are there no camel farmers here in Europe?'"

In India, camel milk is used therapeutically against jaundice, tuberculosis, asthma, anaemia and piles

It was a difficult process becoming the first one, though. The initial problem was that the camel was not officially classified by the European Union as a production animal.

Mr Smits had to have special permission from the government, proving his ability to treat the animals well and humanely.

Then he was told it was forbidden to import camels from outside Europe.

Then there was the problem of milking.

Problematic temperaments

Frank Smits claims to have invented the world's first effective camel milking machine.

Camels in Comvoirt
Smits now has some 40 animals on his Cromvoirt farm

It looks similar to a cow milking machine, but the vacuum function is different, the pulsation is different and the devices which attach to the camel's teats are different sizes.

At the same time, Smits had to ensure there was a market for his product. He began handing out samples of his milk outside local mosques, appealing chiefly to Moroccan and Somalian immigrants whose families back home were accustomed to it as a staple.

"Of course there was no demand for camel milk at the start because nobody knew you could buy it here," he said.

"But word did slowly spread and he now supplies to more than 50 shops in Holland and exports to Germany and to the UK."

Eventually, his hope is that camel milk will catch on widely among native Europeans.

There is one serious obstacle to mass production, however, which is the problematic temperament of your average camel.

This not only requires the presence of its calf to give milk but, according to Frank Smits, also has to be in the right mood away from the company of strangers.

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