Follow-up: Going to see The Man about a camel

Last month, we wrote about the gap between raw camel milk and regulations. Now, that gap is narrowing

In November, we published a feature on the convoluted raw camel milk trade. When we assigned reporter Eric Berger the story, we thought we knew what we were getting into: an ode to uncommon partnerships, a subculture-send-up, or even a pastoral narrative about land use.

Missed our story on raw camel milk? Read it here.

What we got instead was an almost farcical belly flop into a perplexing (and highly profitable) corner of the food system: raw, unpasteurized camel’s milk produced and processed by “a network of Amish-Mennonite farmers spread through Pennsylvania and the Midwest” and retailed by a California-based company called Desert Farms, which is run by a 26-year-old Saudi entrepreneur named Walid Abdul-Wahab.

Sounds like a Coen Brothers movie. Or, as Berger put it in the last line of his piece: “Just like in your favorite HBO series, we’re left wondering what new twist comes next for this possibly burgeoning, possibly doomed young market.”

Well, it appears real life has delivered that new twist faster than any writer could’ve conjured. Food Safety News reports that on December 19, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Kansas City office sent a warning letter to Missouri-based Samuel P. Hostetler, one of the Amish farmers whose milk Desert Farms retails, and whose “Hump-Back Dairys” [sic] provided both the source material and the setting for Berger’s story.

It’s yet another instance where the idiosyncrasies of new food fit poorly in the old regulatory system.

Flash backgrounder: until recently, Desert Farms had been touting on its website the therapeutic benefits of drinking camel’s milk (people in Saudi Arabia have been savoring it for centuries for its alleged curative powers and, in more modern times, the product has developed another following: those who believe it cures autism). Trouble is, according to Berger’s story, “By marketing its products as therapeutic, Desert Farms was going way beyond the kind of health claims that food manufacturers are allowed—with lots of limitations—to make.”

So in September, FDA sent Desert Farms a warning letter that said, in part, “The therapeutic claims on your website and Facebook page establish that these products are drugs because they are intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.” And you can’t sell a drug in interstate commerce without FDA approval (which could be tough for Desert Farms to secure).

You can’t sell a drug in interstate commerce without FDA approval (which could be tough for Desert Farms to secure).

As of our publishing date on November 18, Desert Farms had removed the health claims from its website. Problem solved? Not quite. There was another unresolved regulatory issue at play, as stated in Berger’s story: “Camel’s milk devotees want the raw, unpasteurized product. And raw milk is problematic.” For reasons that boil down to a Bill Clinton-esque semantics lesson involving the definition of a “hoofed animal,” FDA and the Missouri Milk Board were in limbo on raw milk rules. And that left a little accountability loophole into which Hostetler, owing to his religion-based resistance to technology and the outside world, and Desert Farms could both fit.

That loophole was not long for this regulated world. According to the Food Safety News story, “Missouri state law allows for the in-state sale of unpasteurized, raw milk only when the sale is directly from a producer to an individual for that individual’s own use. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has interpreted the point of origin of the sale of raw milk is the producer’s farm and that dairy farmers cannot sell raw milk from off-site distribution centers.” The story goes on to say, “The federal inspectors found records showing the dairy had distributed unpasteurized, raw camel milk and raw camel milk products across state lines, which is a violation of federal law.”

This may seem a microdrama, and we won’t argue that point. But it’s yet another instance where the idiosyncrasies of new food fit poorly in the old regulatory system. Turns out, that incompatibility makes for some really great stories.

Hostetler has until January 6 to respond to the warning letter.

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.