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a2 Milk: A different kind of dairy

Jennifer Janak Published on 11 March 2015

Milk consumption in the U.S. has plummeted to its lowest levels since 1970, according to the USDA. What used to be a serving of 1.5 cups per day in the 1970s is nearly half that today, a mere 0.8 cups.

Some believe the decline in consumption is due to milk’s taste and the numerous alternatives available, while others assume the prevalence of lactose intolerance.

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Fortunately, there is a different kind of milk that has gained popularity in Australia and Europe, and perhaps with time, it may as well in the U.S. too.

“Consumers of a2 Milk commonly report a link between a2 Milk and improved digestive comfort relative to milk containing the A1 beta-casein,” says Richard Willis, a representative for a2 Milk Company.

The company first began producing and marketing the enriched milk in New Zealand in 2002 and has since expanded to parts of the United Kingdom and Australia, with powdered products being exported to China to be used in infant formula.

Natural milk contains many different proteins, 80 percent of which are casein. Most dairy milk contains two different types of the prominent beta-casein protein – A1 and A2. Certain breeds of cows, such as the Holstein, produce milk with mostly A1 beta-casein. Other breeds, such as the Guernsey, and also sheep and goats, produce milk predominately carrying A2 beta-casein.

Historically, cows’ milk only contained A2 beta-casein, but as a biological genetic mutation altered European herds, the prevalence of both A2 and A1 beta-caseins in conventional milk became apparent.

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Neither beta-casein is harmful to consume; however, due to its slight structural difference, A1 leads to a variation in breakdown during the digestion process and may result in discomfort; often times consumers self-diagnose this symptom as being lactose intolerant.

“The theory about A1 versus A2 milk protein was never seriously debated in the U.S.,” says Greg Miller, executive vice president for the National Dairy Council. “International reviews of the science to date confirm that there is no reason to believe a2 Milk has health benefits beyond those of regular milk.”

Miller elaborated saying that following a 2004 scientific review, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority concluded there was no sufficient evidence supporting a health difference between a2 and conventional milk. A similar case in Europe found the same results in 2009.

While the data to support any claims for benefits of a2 Milk may be weak and inconsistent, there are consumers and producers who are interested in this niche market.

Promotion and demand for pure A2 dairy products in Australia has been created to encourage consumers to continue choosing dairy over other alternatives.

“Consumption in the liquid milk category has increased 7 percent since 2005,” says Michael Perich, an Australian dairy farmer who produces a2 Milk. “The growth of the milk market is good for dairy producers as well as allowing more people to enjoy the benefits of milk again.”

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Perich was involved with launching a2 Milk in Australia roughly seven years ago. He owns Leppington Pastoral Company, one of 30 certified herds in Australia that produce a2 Milk.

Of the 2,000 Holsteins at Leppington Pastoral Company, 75 percent are A2-producing cows. The herd originally began with only 35 percent carrying the pure A2-A2 beta-casein gene. Within the next couple of years, Perich has intentions of having a 100 percent pure A2 herd, calves and youngstock included.

“Once you begin testing the herd and then using A2-A2 sires for breeding, a producer can easily begin increasing the herd,” says Gary Bivens, dairy manager at Leppington Pastoral Company.

Bivens moved to Australia from the U.S. with his wife six-and-a-half years ago and has been a fundamental player in growing the A2 milking herd at Leppington Pastoral Company.

The a2 Milk Company works with farmers to DNA test their herd and select for cows that inherently produce milk rich in the pure A2 type of beta-casein. After cows test positive for A2 beta-casein, they are then segregated and milked separately from the rest of the herd to ensure there is no cross-contamination.

All of the bulls are re-tested before using them on the A2 herd to confirm the original DNA results.

“We have discovered a way to ensure all our cows naturally produce a2 Milk and have gone to great lengths to bring people the highest-quality, freshest-tasting milk and dairy products,” says Willis.

At the same time Bivens moved to Australia, a2 Milk Company was trying to implement the product in the U.S. and had set up a DNA testing lab in Lincoln, Nebraska. The company reached out to Prairieland Dairy about the new milk marketing strategy and asked them to participate.

“We segregated our herd and started marketing a2 Milk,” says Dan Rice, manager of Prairieland Dairy in Firth, Nebraska, who incorporated A2-A2 production to his herd in 2007.

With a growing consumer trend for healthier products that focus on digestive and food sensitivity, a2 Milk was ready to approach consumers in the U.S. with a domestically sourced product. a2 Milk was introduced to Hy-Vee stores in particular states within the Midwest during its implementation period. However, the product didn’t sell well and is currently unavailable, according to Miller.

That had been a disappointment for Rice.

“In 2007, we tried implementing the idea in the Midwest, but it was not the right market or timing to enter,” says Willis. “Now, given the size of the U.S. market, it becomes extremely attractive. This product brings consumers back to dairy, and that is what we need.”

While it was an ineffective approach in 2007, Rice hopes that there is enormous future in the U.S., given how the Australian market has reacted.

Bivens also believes it’s not a question of will a2 Milk be produced in the U.S., but when will it be produced. The company must first begin testing dairy herds for A2 cows before any processing and marketing can take place.

“It seems to have its own niche market,” says Bivens. “In my opinion, it has great potential.”

Willis noted that the a2 Milk Company is currently developing the appropriate infrastructure to bring a2 Milk to the U.S. in the foreseeable future.

The a2 Milk story has made a great impact on the dairy industry of Australia and the United Kingdom. The U.S. industry could benefit just the same.

From the experiences of Australian dairy producers, slowly transitioning the herd to A2-A2 may be the most cost-effective option in the long run.

Herd size is not a determining factor for converting to a pure A2 herd; however, it does play a key role in the decision-making process.

“The initial development of milking herds is best suited to the larger producers with the ability to move cows between pens or farms,” says Willis. “However, we do have a breeding program to convert small farms to A2 over a multitude of years.”

While Leppington Pastoral Company is a large dairy in Australia and could have easily fully transitioned to an A2 milking herd, Perich opted to stretch the changeover throughout a number of years.

For them, it was more economical to slowly convert the herd.

“We could have converted straight across, but that way was cost-prohibiting,” says Perich.

Bivens adds that it also gave them time to separate the A2 and non-A2 herds and develop a concrete plan for their marketing strategy of a2 Milk.

At Prairieland Dairy, the most challenging task was maintaining the purity of a2 Milk, ensuring that it was free of any traces of A1 protein as well as breeding specifically for that trait. That in itself is an aspect of production producers need to be aware of if they decide to market a2 Milk.

Despite the challenges faced, Rice’s decision to produce a2 Milk was simple.

“Producing the healthiest milk possible for consumers has always been a goal for Prairieland Dairy,” says Rice. “This was one way we used to meet our goal.”

There have been multiple benefits to providing a2 Milk for the public. Rich flavor and digestion ease are among the reasons people have chosen to consume this product, and there is an additional premium paid to dairymen who produce pure a2 Milk.

“Receiving the farm-gate price for producing and selling a2 Milk is the most beneficial return,” says Perich. “But more importantly, as a producer I want to provide the best-quality milk.”

Leppington Pastoral Company has utilized Bivens’ help for five years, but now he says it is time to make an impact in his home country. He has seen the industry prosper in Australia and hopes to see similar results in the U.S.

“It’s been a good experience to see the market take off and to be a part of it. Upon my return to the U.S., I hope I will be able to get involved with a2 Milk production and marketing,” says Bivens. “It seems to be here to stay.” PD

Jennifer Janak was a 2014 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

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