RALEIGH, N.C. -- Millie Hinkle first tasted camel milk in the United Arab Emirates about 10 years ago. She had no idea the salty drink, still warm from the camel and served in an ornate bowl with a side of walnuts, would become an obsession.
"It has taken over my life," said the 57-year-old practitioner of natural medicine as she cruised down a tree-lined road here in her white SUV emblazoned with a camel.
In some countries, camel milk is called "liquid gold" for its healing and nutritional qualities. But camel dairy is not widely available in the U.S., in part because the animals don't like to be milked. Lauren Etter reports from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ms. Hinkle has drained her savings, slashed the number of hours she spends at her day job and started a company called Camel Milk USA. Her goal is to bring the milk, reputed to have healing and aphrodisiac powers, to the U.S. where it's been hard to get mainly because camels weren't listed in rules governing the sale of milk.
In April, Ms. Hinkle won initial approval from the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, a nonprofit group, to market the milk. Now, she's awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on some final details.
But there are several humps to overcome before camel milk is widely available in the U.S. For starters, there aren't many camels here. Those that are mainly work in circuses or live in zoos.
Another challenge: Camels don't much like to be milked. Camels can be cantankerous and persuading them to give up their milk can be part chore, part art. Camel experts say the animals are often ticklish around their udders and, without proper training, might lie down in the middle of being milked.
Camel milk is a centuries-old staple for nomadic tribes across the Middle East and Africa. It is also drunk by elderly men to enhance virility; by the sick to treat a variety of ailments; and by those who believe it has magical properties.
Lauren Etter/The Wall Street Journal
Camels feed at North Carolina's Ferncroft Farms, which is working with Millie Hinkle, proprietor of Camel Milk USA.
Ms. Hinkle said she's working with a large camel dairy in the Middle East that is interested in helping start a camel dairy in the U.S. She declined to name the dairy.
Most camel milking is still done by hand, but some modern dairies have gotten into the game. A dairy in Dubai called Emirates Industries for Camel Milk & Products sells camel-milk chocolate and camel milk under the brand "Camelicious." The milk comes in flavors including saffron and date.
The Camelicious dairy, opened in 2006, uses mechanized milking technology and trains camels to walk into the milking parlor. When the dairy first started, "the Bedouins said, 'No way will the animals enter that milking parlor,'" said Peter Nagy, the Hungarian farm manager there.
He and his wife, both veterinarians, solved the problem, he said, but "I cannot explain exactly how this was done." Mr. Nagy credits training by his wife: "A woman has a sixth sense" that allows her to "know how the animals feel."
Today, the Camelicious dairy has more than 1,500 camels. They are taken by the Bedouins on one-hour walks daily through the desert in a caravan formation. The dairy is working to develop higher-yielding milking camels. An average milking camel produces about two gallons of milk a day, Mr. Nagy said. Dairy cows produce around seven gallons a day.
In a 2006 report, the United Nations recommended camel milk as an area for Middle East economic development, saying that $10 billion in global sales "would be entirely within the realm of possibility."
Ms. Hinkle, who dons flowing white pantsuits and dangly gold earrings, sometimes tears up when talking about her quest. "I have to try to do what I can to help the most people," she said. "And for me this is it."
She said she was interested in becoming a physician as a young woman, but after being "poisoned" by lawn pesticides decided instead to study natural medicine. She opened her own clinic about 20 years ago in Raleigh, called Natural Health Resource Center. Here, from a second-floor office, she says she fields emails and calls from people who want camel milk as a health remedy and immigrants who crave the drink.
She gets a phone call almost every week from Abdirizak Mohamuod, a Somalian man in Minnesota who sells dried fruits and ethnic food. He says he has at least 70,000 Somalian customers in Minnesota who would buy it. "We would like to get the milk as soon as possible," he said.
Ms. Hinkle got her first taste of camel milk in the late 1990s while on a trip to the United Arab Emirates with her husband, who was then working for the state of North Carolina. As guests at the home of a member of the royal family, she recalls they were shown a lush backyard filled with racing camels and treated to fresh camel milk.
"I liked it OK," she said. But "it was one taste, and I never thought of it again."
Until three years ago. Her curiosity was piqued after reading about the benefits of camel's milk in an alternative-health magazine.
Camel milk has three times as much vitamin C as cow's milk and contains high amounts of iron, unsaturated fatty acids and B vitamins, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization. Proponents tout it as an aid for everything from diabetes to autism. A biomedical research company in Belgium, called Ablynx, has been working on developing drugs based on antibodies found in camels and llamas, called nanobodies.
When Ms. Hinkle tried to buy camel milk in the U.S., she couldn't find any, which she found frustrating. "As I read more about camel milk, I thought 'I gotta get it here.'"
Her drive sent her before the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, a nonprofit, industry-backed group formed in 1946 that oversees drafting of certain regulations that are then sent for FDA approval. She put together a proposal asking for camels to be included under the milk rules. The FDA recently gave tentative approval to cover camels, as well as reindeer, llamas, moose and donkeys under the rules.
An FDA spokesman said, "We wanted to improve the science basis in the definition" of milk coming from hooved mammals to include "species that may not have 'true hooves,'" such as camels.
Now, Ms. Hinkle is working to get FDA approval of a series of tests required to ensure the quality of camel milk. To do that, she needed samples. Larry Seibel, an animal breeder just north of Raleigh who specializes in white and spotted camels, agreed to help.
On a recent day, Mr. Seibel's wooded 85-acre reserve, called Ferncroft Farms, was abuzz with peacocks, munchkin cats, French bulldogs and a zebra. One of his 40 camels, named Martha, had recently given birth, providing a perfect milking opportunity since a camel tends to give up milk only with its baby nearby.
Martha, standing nearly 6 feet tall at the hump, moaned and kicked around hay in her barn. Her baby hungrily suckled her udders as a farmhand tiptoed around her and started milking.
Mr. Seibel petted Martha and cooed, "Good girl." Finally, Martha squirted her milk, which resembled a cappuccino, into a glass jar.