Minnesota's camel milk black market
It felt like a drug deal.
"Stay in the car. I'll be right back." We were sitting in the back of a limousine, our fingers crossed that this would be our last stop. It had been three days, and we hadn't seen a trace of the elusive substance. "Turn the music up. What CD is he playing?" We nodded our heads to calm our nerves. Ten minutes later, the limo driver waltzed out of the restaurant, grinning and sipping from a styrofoam cup. He handed us a cardboard carrier with four more cups inside.
"It's fresh," he said. "From Columbus, Ohio."
After days of searching, too many dead ends to count, and hours in the back of a stranger's limousine, raw camel milk was finally ours.
Plate or Pass: Camel meat
It started innocently enough. While researching camel meat, we stumbled upon a Star Tribune article from 2009 about the possibility of camel milk coming to Minnesota within a year, a development that would benefit Minnesota's Somali population. So, five years later, where was it? We called Dr. Millie Hinkle, the founder of Camel Milk U.S.A. and the driving force behind the legalization of camel milk, to find out where all the camel milk vendors were.
"They're mostly, honestly, undercover," she said.
Without dairies pasteurizing the milk, vendors aren't allowed to legally sell camel milk. Still, this staple of many Somali diets is available here in the Twin Cities -- if you know where to look for it.
We were determined to find this particular strain of milk, so coveted that a black market has formed around it. On our way to the Mall of Somalia, we stopped at a Halal market on Lake Street.
"Do you have camel milk?" we asked. The man behind the counter laughed. "Only cow's milk," he said. As we walked towards the door, he called out, "It's illegal, you know!"
At the mall, we asked a cook at a small cafe toward the back of the building if he knew where we could find the milk. He pointed us toward the coffee shop near a front entrance. "If it's not there, try Lake and 13th," he said. We asked the man at the front counter of the coffee shop if he had seen any. The customers standing in line looked startled. "Camel milk? No, not here. Try there," he said, pointing to a halal meat market across from his shop. It wasn't there either.
Defeated, we got back in the car and headed for Lake and 13th. We asked the men behind the butcher counter. They said to ask the man up front. We asked the man up front. He darted his eyes. "No we don't have it. We used to have it, but not anymore." He walked us to a shelf lined with dozens of empty plastic containers. "These are the bottles it came in," he said. "The milk went bad."
Before setting out for our second search attempt, we emailed Hinkle asking if our struggles were to be expected. "You're not imagining things," she said. "They are selling it undercover. It is black market, because it's illegal to sell the milk raw."
By day three of our unsuccessful search, we had a friend ask his Somali co-worker to help us find camel milk. He offered to try a halal market on Franklin, predicting that they probably wouldn't have it. Inside the store, a half-Somali, half-English conversation involving six people ensued. Before we knew it, we were being ushered into a limo by its driver, a Somali man who was determined to help us track down our camel milk.
At the first market, our fearless guide walked through the back door, exchanged a few words with the butcher, and shook his head. "There's no camel milk here." We tried another market. Then another. We asked some confused Holy Land employees. Finally, our driver announced that we were to stay in the car. "They don't trust you because you're white," he said. He went in alone.
Our last stop was a restaurant that we'd tried before and were turned away from. Ten minutes later, he came out with the four containers of camel milk, which sold for $2 each. We thanked the him profusely and headed home with our contraband.
As recently as five years ago, it was a felony to sell camel milk. In 2009, Hinkle challenged the FDA to change the law, and that year the FDA approved the sale of camel milk in the United States. Three years later, the law was changed again to allow the sale of camel milk at grocery stores.
Camel dairy farms started popping up here not long after. Since Somalia is one of the top producers and consumers of camel milk, it's no surprise that the milk found its way to Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in North America. But here's the problem: It's illegal to ship raw, unpasteurized camel milk over state lines and illegal to sell it commercially.
So why don't camel farmers just pasteurize the milk?
"A lot of [the dairy farms] are owned by the Amish, so for religious reasons and I guess because they're making so much money selling it raw, they're not buying pasteurization machines," said Dr. Millie Hinkle, the founder of Camel Milk USA. "I have offered free pasteurization machines to every single dairy. Not one dairy has taken me up on it."
A number of non-Amish camel dairy farms are expected to open in the spring and summer of this year. Since they plan on pasteurizing the milk, Hinkle said we may see camel milk in stores like Whole Foods within a few years.
Gaining traction among cow-milk drinkers could prove another hurdle for the aboveboard camel milk market. When Hinkle first started urging people to milk their camels, Hinkle said no one took her seriously.
"They laughed at me, even the people who had camels.... Well those very same people are making tens of thousands of dollars per month. It is going for $10 per pint, so you add up the figures," she said. "It is being sold as fast as they can milk the camel."
Hinkle swears by the benefits of camel milk, claiming to have seen drastic improvements in autistic patients, patients with Crohn's disease, and diabetics. Camel milk supposedly contains up to three times as much calcium as cow's milk and resembles human breast milk more closely than any other non-human animal's milk. But the FDA has yet to find truth in any of the claims.
"Some of the advertising that has been used [was] making health claims that had not been substantiated," said Carrie Rigdon, the rapid response team supervisor for the dairy and food inspection division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Rigdon said she's taken part in one raw camel milk bust in Minnesota since joining the state agency in 2009. From what we witnessed, we're guessing that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Check back in tomorrow to find out what we thought of our bootleg camel milk in the next installment of Plate or Pass.
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