Five years ago, the debate over the claimed health benefits of A2 milk was raging. Since then, the alternative milk has taken off in Australia and is about to be launched in Britain. What is happening here?
The curious case of A2 milk remains unsolved, despite the hubbub and revelations of 2007.
Five years ago, all hell broke loose in the dairying sector as an explosive book by Lincoln University agribusiness professor Keith Woodford laid bare the efforts by major players to discredit the supposed health benefits of A2 milk and untangled a web of intrigue that involved Fonterra and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA).
Since then there has been new science backing those health claims and new markets for the milk. But here, where the A2 marketing story began and as the home of the A2 Corporation that promotes the milk internationally, the debate has fallen quiet.
While Australian sales are healthy and rising, and the milk is about to be launched into the massive British market, back in the South Island A2 customers still have to deal with a limited and spasmodic supply.
Woodford said he was more strongly convinced that A2 milk was the healthier choice, not containing A1 beta casein that produced the betacasomorphin-7 (BCM7) protein fragment linked to diabetes, heart disease, autism and, more recently, cot death (sudden infant death syndrome).
However, he believed the January 2009 report of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had been «a blow for the A2 cause».
«Lost under the headlines was the acknowledgement by EFSA that A2 milk was indeed different and that BCM7 was released from ‘ordinary milk’ containing A1 beta casein but not from A2 milk, where all the beta casein is of the A2 type,» he said.
«What EFSA claimed was there was no evidence that BCM7 was then able to get through to the blood and thereby have an effect.»
New research had provided that evidence, Woodford said.
One of the EFSA review authors, Ivano De Noni, had since published two papers showing BCM7 was released into the intestines from not only «normal» milk but all dairy products containing A1 beta casein, such as cheese, yoghurt and infant formula.
There were also papers from Russian and Polish researchers demonstrating that babies on infant formula had BCM7 in their blood, which proved EFSA wrong, Woodford said.
Babies with depressed breathing in their sleep, which could be a cause of cot death, had been shown by Dr Elzbieta Kostyrato in the Neuropeptides journal to have high levels of BCM7.
Woodford said the new research was significant.
«Major elements of the mainstream dairy industry, at least in Australia and New Zealand, have known about BCM7 and the apparent links to a range of health conditions for more than a decade,» he said. «They hoped that those apparent links might disappear, and for a while it seemed that this might happen. Now there is no chance that this will happen.»
Fonterra’s approach to A2 milk has not changed or softened over the last five years.
Group director technology and chief technical officer Jeremy Hill said Fonterra had reviewed the «A1 versus A2 issue» and «found no cause for concern».
The dairy giant clings to the EFSA findings from 2009, with Hill saying its position was «confirmed» by the eight independent expert reviewers who «concluded the weight of scientific evidence did not support claims that A2 milk is a healthier alternative».
While Woodford quotes the new research, Hill said there was «nothing new in the A1 versus A2 milk health debate, but we will continue to review the scientific evidence, as and when needed».
There had been no discussions with the A2 Corporation about milk, Hill said.
Auckland University professor of population nutrition and global health Boyd Swinburn, who wrote a report on A2 milk that the NZFSA misrepresented (see facts box), said the evidence for A2 «seems to be getting stronger».
«There’s nothing that has knocked it out, but it’s quite disappointing the low amount of research. It hasn’t taken off as much as I thought it would,» he said.
«There are a lot of commercial issues tied up in it. Fonterra’s view doesn’t surprise me. For them to take any public position which is pro-A2 automatically means their standard milk dominated by A1 is not as good, so that is pretty untenable for a big company to take.»
The A2 Corporation has been careful in recent years not to overplay the health claims or research on the apparent benefits of A2 milk.
Managing director Geoff Babidge said the company was happy to «let the scientists do the science» and build up a body of evidence.
«For the last five years we have been saying, ‘All dairy is good; A2 may be more suitable for certain people’. Our business is premised on that.»
Sales of A2 milk in Australia were strong, with A2’s current market share estimated at 4.7 per cent of all Australian milk sales.
Sales in the last six months of 2011 were 48.7 per cent higher than the previous comparable half year, while in the quarter to the end of March this year they totalled A$12.36 million (NZ$16m).
New Zealand sales were only about 3 per cent of that, he said.
Australian demand was even more pleasing given the supermarket price of two litres of standard-brand milk had fallen to A$2 compared with A$4.95 for A2 milk, he said.
«The reason the business in New Zealand is pretty modest is that some time ago, prior to the recent shareholders and board of management, the company issued a whole raft of licences to small operators. That model proved not to be particularly efficient,» he said.
A2 milk will be launched in Britain in September in a joint venture with Robert Wiseman Dairies, Britain’s largest fresh-milk company, which delivers more than 30 per cent of Britain’s milk and has annual sales of about [PndStlg]1 billion (NZ$1.9b). The company is now part of German- owned dairy group Muller.
Babidge said the size of the British thirst for A2 milk could be at least three times that of Australia’s.
«We are very optimistic about the opportunities for the company in the UK,» he said. «That is not to say that everything in Australia will be replicated in the UK.»
In New Zealand, North Auckland dairy company Fresha Valley has the licence to produce homogenised A2 milk in one and two-litre containers.
«We’d like to do more in New Zealand. We are a New Zealand-headquartered company, but realistically also we are making substantial progress and having special success in Australia and now in the UK. We’re also looking at additional international markets, Europe or North America, to put something similar in place that we have in the UK.»
What does the company have planned for New Zealand?
Babidge points to the agreement it has signed with Synlait Milk for the manufacture of A2 milk powders and infant formulas. The deal involves Synlait collecting A2 milk from accredited Canterbury dairy farms and manufacturing the powders at its Rakaia plant, a «key step» in launching A2 infant formula products into Asia, particularly China.
He estimated the infant formula market in China was worth US$6b a year.
Woodford, whose book is in its second edition, said he made a point of drinking A2 milk where possible.
«There is more research that will be forthcoming over the next 12 months,» he said.
«Since becoming aware of where that research is heading, I take even more care to minimise my own intake of non-A2 milk.»