A1 threat to NZ dairy

CRITICAL ISSUE:  The mainstream dairy industry has always fought against the notion that A1 beta casein may be a health issue.
CRITICAL ISSUE: The mainstream dairy industry has always fought against the notion that A1 beta casein may be a health issue.

Evidence that A1 beta-casein might be a human health issue has been available for more than 15 years. However, the mainstream dairy industry has always fought against the notion that it might be important.

In 2007, I wrote a book, Devil in the Milk, which brought together the evidence at that time. The mainstream industry and even some elements within the Government were unimpressed. They made it clear this was an issue New Zealand did not need to air publicly. The industry, with considerable help from the Food Safety Authority, was largely successful in dousing the public concerns, leaving just a few little puffs of smoke to remind others that the fire might not be totally out.

In Australia events played out rather differently. In 2007, A2 Corporation, which in recent months has been rebadged as The a2 Milk Company, was successful in gaining a secure foothold in Australian supermarkets. Its a2 milk -which is free of A1 beta-casein, is now found in all major Australian supermarkets. Apart from Coles and Woolworth's home brands, it is Australia's leading milk brand. It sells for more than twice the price of the supermarket home brands.

Within the past year, The a2 Milk Company has also launched an infant formula, a2 Platinum. It is produced in New Zealand by Synlait on contract to The a2 Milk Company, and marketed in Australia, New Zealand and China. Within New Zealand, the promotion has been limited but in Australia it is getting plenty of traction.

All of this is relevant to New Zealand for two reasons. The first is that The a2 Milk Company is a New Zealand-listed company and one of the country's largest agri-food companies by market capitalisation. Due to release its latest annual financial results on Thursday, I expect it will report substantial further progress in Australia, but perhaps not in other domains.

The second reason is that there is a flood of new research now being published in international scientific and medical journals demonstrating the relevance of A1 beta-casein to human health. The underlying cause is that A1 beta-casein digests to release a peptide (a protein fragment) which has opioid characteristics. This translates as ‘a morphine-like fragment from beta-casein containing seven amino acids'.

The effects are multi-faceted and each month we learn more. The key research which has brought the beta-casein issue back to the public's attention has come from Curtin University's school of public health. It demonstrated in a human clinical trial that A1 and A2 beta-casein produce statistically significant differences in digestive symptoms. This has received huge media exposure in Australia and some reporting here. The Curtin paper is published in the high-ranking European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. From Lincoln University, I have worked directly with the Curtin team on this trial, and I am one of the four authors.

Ironically, I think there are more important papers that have been forthcoming in the last few months, but they were with animals. With rats, mice and rabbits, and under strict ethical guidelines, we can do trials that include tissue dissection. Of course this is not possible with humans. But it has been the human clinical trials that the Australian media has latched onto. This has the potential to now refocus attention on other new research. There is further research in the pipeline, some of it close to publication.

I have always argued that for New Zealand the A1 versus A2 milk issue could be either a risk or an opportunity. Unfortunately, to a large extent we have squandered the opportunity - by ignoring rather than managing the risk. Now it is about to become a real risk.

The way to get rid of A1 beta-casein is to breed cows that produce only the A2 type of beta-casein. It is easy to breed out the A1, but it takes time. Sheep, goats, camels, buffalo and humans only produce beta-casein of the A2 type. The A1 type is in cattle only and has been caused by a historical mutation.

There is a lot more to be said about A1 beta-casein, including specifics of the health implications and the associated industry politics.

The big message is that New Zealand should quickly get on with the task of breeding its dairy herds to be free of A1 beta-casein. Unfortunately, that will take time. 

Disclosure of Interest:

Keith Woodford receives royalties on his book on A1 and A2 beta casein and has previously acted as an independent adviser to The a2 Milk Company and other agri-food companies. He holds no shares in any milk company.

Keith Woodford is Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University. His archived writings can be found at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com

Sunday Star Times