“The milk that might change everything.” That’s the bold claim of a brand that will soon be sold as “a2 Milk” here in the United States. An April launch, complete with a robust amount of advertising and in-store demos, is slated for California retail outlets from Safeway and Krogers to Whole Foods.

The a2 Milk Company, a New Zealand-based firm, has trading activities in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, China, and soon, here in the U.S. It plans to invest $20 million over 3 years to fund its entry into the U.S. marketplace. Company officials say they’ll assess how sales go in California before embarking into other regions of the U.S.

Getting back to ‘how milk used to be’

While the bold label claim seems to signal a new advance in the dairy world, company officials say that their a2 Milk is actually what milk used to be —  at least in terms of beta casein proteins, which make up about 30 percent of the total protein in milk solids.

In earlier times, cows produced only the A2 protein and none produced the A1 protein. But then, about 10,000 years ago, a natural single-cell mutation occurred in dairy cows in Europe that caused them to produce the A1 beta casein protein as well.

Holstein cows at a New Zealand dairy. Milk from Holsteins typically contains the A1 protein.

That change occurred primarily in the large breeds such as Holsteins, which produce considerably more milk than other breeds. These heavy-producing breeds were quickly adopted by dairies in Europe and the U.S. and, as a result,  just about all the regular milk sold today in U.S. stores and in much of Europe contains the A1 protein. Some of those cows produce only the A1 protein, while others produce both the A1 and A2 proteins.

For the most part, breeds such as Guernseys, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Normandes and those in Africa and India still produce A2 milk. However cross-breeding with bulls with the A1 protein has resulted in hybrids that produce A1 as well as A2 proteins. This has primarily occurred in Western herds.

What is A2 milk like? If you were breastfed, it was the first milk you ever had. That’s because all other mammals, including humans, produce only A2 milk.

Who discovered this?

According to the company’s website, in the 1990s, New Zealand-based scientist Dr. Corrie McLachlan started doing research on why more and more people were having adverse reactions to regular milk. Through his research, he discovered that normal milk contains different proteins, including A1 beta casein protein and A2 beta casein protein.

As McLachlan’s research progressed, he learned that the A1 protein seemed to cause side effects in some people, such as bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, mucus buildup and general discomfort. Based on that discovery, he set up The a2 Milk Company.

Company officials say this distinction matters because a2 Milk offers a breakthrough for many of the people who have turned away from milk because it upsets their digestive systems.

They’re not talking about people with lactose (milk sugars) intolerance or an allergy to cows’ milk protein, but rather the people who become uncomfortable enough after drinking regular cows’ milk that they swear off of it, citing after-effects such as bloating, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

Guernsey dairy cows, whose milk typically contains the A2 protein.

Peter Nathan, CEO of A2 Dairy Products Australia, told Food Safety News that while about 23 percent of Westerners experience a “perceived dairy intolerance,” only about 5 percent are medically diagnosed as being lactose intolerant.

“Clearly dairy intolerance and lactose intolerance are not necessarily the same thing,” he said. “We believe that it is likely that the rest are reacting to the impact of the A1 protein, as many people who have a perceived intolerance can drink a2 Milk without the discomfort.”

According to the company’s website, there are more than 100 peer-reviewed, evidence-based scientific research papers surrounding the A1/A2 scientific explanation. Through the years, some studies extolling A2 milk have been refuted, and the general agreement is that some have been inconclusive and more research needs to be done. Interest in the topic continues to drive research.

The first human trial, funded by The a2 Milk Company and published last summer, shows a difference in digestion between A1 and A2. According to a summary of the trial, subjects on a diet of A2 milk reported less abdominal pain, compared to those on a diet of A1 milk.

The conclusion of a study done on mice says that the study supports the purported harmful impacts of consumption of A1 “like” variants of beta casein and suggests possible aggravation of inflammatory response in the gut as the cause of various health disorders.

The research compared A1 variants with A2 variants and found no such aggravation in the gut in the case of A2 variants.

Some studies have even found a link between lower consumption of A1 milk and a possible reduction of autistic and schizophrenic symptoms, although the researchers said that more research also needs to be done on this.

A commercial splash

a2 Milk cartoonA2 Milk has already made a splash in Australia and New Zealand, where it was introduced about 12 years ago. Despite a slow start due to management problems and other reasons, Nathan said it has gained traction in the past 8 years and sales have grown substantially. Currently, about 9.3 percent of the milk sold in Australia is a2 Milk, and Nathan describes it as the fastest-growing milk brand in that country.

In Australia, a2 Milk is sold in all major grocery stores.

Although there’s a backstory including a wide range of previous claims that A1 milk can cause diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune conditions such as asthma and eczema, the company is currently concentrating on touting a2 Milk’s ability to boost the number of people who will be able to drink milk.

In the U.S., as well as in some European countries, milk sales have been declining, with more and more people turning to alternatives such as soda, juice, and water, as well as almond and soy milks, which don’t contain any cows’ milk at all.

Jim Smith, U.S. marketing director for The a2 Milk Company, told Food Safety News that a2 Milk is “real, natural cows’ milk” and therefore a “nutritional powerhouse.” He pointed out that an 8-ounce cup of milk contains 300 mg of naturally occurring calcium.

“Alternative, non-dairy, plant-based products, like soy and almond milks, do not have these levels of naturally occurring nutrients and typically modify and fortify their products with a calcium that is not as effectively absorbed as the calcium naturally contained in dairy milk such as a2 Milk,” he said.

This is especially important because pre-teens who haven’t had milk as they were growing up have been found to have low calcium levels. The same is true for peri- and post-menopausal women who don’t drink milk.

Asked about what sort of reception the company’s a2 Milk will have in the California marketplace, Smith said that consumers, dairy farmers, and retailers have told the company that it has the potential to play a significant part in restoring confidence in dairy milk among many people who have significantly reduced their consumption in recent years.

“We believe we’re bringing a pure and natural product to the many millions of Americans who would otherwise have to restrict or avoid the goodness and taste of fresh milk,” Smith said. “Independent research tells us that a2 Milk brings a digestive advantage to all. It is, after all, the original milk.”

When describing who buys a2 Milk, Nathan said, “They tend to skew younger and are over-represented as mothers with kids. They are also more concerned about the food they eat and are more health conscious.”

What does this have to do with food safety?

milk-in-a-glass-406Some people who have turned to raw milk (milk that hasn’t been pasteurized to kill harmful germs) have said they made that choice because drinking pasteurized milk upsets their digestive system.

The company believes that its a2 Milk, which is pasteurized, will offer those people an option — one that bypasses the risk of becoming ill with a foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria, pathogens which can contaminate raw milk.

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that from 1998 through 2011, 148 outbreaks due to consumption of raw milk or raw milk products were reported to the agency. These resulted in 2,384 illnesses, 284 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.

According to CDC, reported outbreaks represent just the tip of the iceberg. For every outbreak and every illness reported, many others occur, and most illnesses are not part of recognized outbreaks.

The bacteria in raw milk can be especially dangerous to people with weakened immune systems, older adults, pregnant women, and children. A CDC analysis also found that foodborne illness from raw milk especially affected children and teenagers.

Go here for more information about raw milk outbreaks in specific states.

The nuts and bolts

The company’s a2 Milk (whole milk, 2 percent milk, 1 percent milk, and fat-free milk) will be sold in half-gallon containers for $4 to $4.50.

Nathan said the company has perfected a patented testing process for A2, and that farmers would need to get permission to market and sell a2 Milk.

According to the company’s website, testing is done by using a simple and non-invasive DNA test that analyzes a strand of hair from the tail of each dairy cow. The A2-certified cows are then segregated and milked separately to produce a2 Milk.

For consumers in other states who want to get a higher-than-average A2 content in the milk they buy, the best route is to get it from a dairy whose cows are A2-dominant breeds such as Jersey, Guernsey, Normande, and Brown Swiss.

What farmers are saying

largedairyfarm_406x250Warren Taylor, owner of Snowville Creamery in Ohio, predicts that it’s primarily the small dairy producers who will make the switch to A2 milk.

Consumer interest is definitely there, he told Food Safety News, pointing out that, in the past couple of years, “the A2 issue” has attracted the most interest on his creamery’s website by a factor of about 100 to one. His phone has been ringing off the hook with farmers asking him about converting to A2, he later added.

“People are hungry for better milk,” Taylor said. “It will be interesting to see how they’ll respond if we do choose to introduce an A2 milk or yogurt.”

He doesn’t see testing for A2 as a problem because there are several affordable places farmers can go to get the testing done. His creamery is in the process of getting the equipment to do the testing there.

That way, Taylor said, “Our farmers can have day-old calves of either gender tested within a couple of days,  which will make it easier to segregate and get farmers the value of A2/A2 animals — and contribute to the future of the A2 milk supply.”

He believes that the creamery’s “nominal 700-cow bulk tank of 10 farms is as high in A2/A2 genetics as any such group in Ohio.”

“I think there is a lot of promise in A2 milk and a good possibility the science will validate at least some of the health claims,” Taylor noted. “As a dairy evangelist, I believe that milk is good for people as long as it’s from cows eating principally grass and that it has been minimally processed so that it’s consumed fresh.”

Unfortunately, he sees some problems ahead. Now that fluid and powdered milk sales have crashed, in large part due to overproduction and the high value of the dollar (which deters foreign buyers), Taylor said he’s been seeing fluid milk processors in Ohio cut off the smaller dairy farms, which often have more A2 and grass-based cows, in favor of the larger producers.

Even so, he has faith that A2 herds, which are usually raised on pasture, will have a “transformative effect” on the dairy industry.

The milk from Brown Swiss dairy cows is predominantly A2.

Western Washington dairy farmers Randy and Kim Mower milk Brown Swiss cows, a breed that Randy Mower says is predominantly A2.

“Our herd was put together in 1906, so I’d venture to say that most of our herd is A2,” he said. “And I’m making a conscious effort to use only A2 bulls.”

Even so, he believes that the promotion of A2 milk in the U.S. is only going to be successful in the “richer populations”  — regions with a good share of affluent people.

“I’m all for A2 milk,” he said. “But my fear is that it will be detrimental to sales of regular milk. I don’t want to see people turn away from regular milk.”

As for where the a2 Milk sold in California will come from, U.S marketing director Smith said the company is able to work with farmers of all types and sizes — subject, of course, to certifying that their cows are A2.

“As a result,” he said, “The a2 Milk Company will be working with a variety of farmers of all kinds as we expand across America.”