Donkey milk for human health?
for Tri-State Livestock News
Donkeys have been used for thousands of years as beast of burden. In many developing countries donkeys are still used for draft purposes such as taking commodities to the market, plowing fields and hauling water. Another use for the equid is milk production. Donkey dairies are a growing agro-commercial industry in Italy. In reality, drinking and using donkey milk is not a new concept. Since donkeys have been domesticated their milk has been used by many different societies and communities especially in developing countries. It is also thougth to have many medicinal purposes especially for children or people who were ill. The Egyptian Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra, was known to take a daily bath in donkey milk because she thought it kept her skin youthful in appearance.
Recently, medical researchers have found that feeding donkey milk to young infants is an alternative source to other milk sources that might cause allergies to flare. One specific allergy is called “cow’s milk allergy.” Researchers in China found that the composition of donkey’s milk compared to other mammalian’s milk is the closest thing to humans’ milk. Italian researchers have also documented that donkey’s milk is the best choice if human’s milk is not available. The milk is similar to human’s milk when comparing several key milk components such as lactose, protein, minerals and omega 3 fatty acids (Gastaldi et al., 2011).
It is also rich in vitamin’s C, D and B12 and is low in fat. Because of the low fat content, babies and young children, due to higher coloric needs and fat intake requirements, may need supplementation. Interest in donkey milk abounds in the elderly population too. The oldest woman in the world, from Southern France, at 116 years of age, claimed to have drunk donkey milk every day. (http://staugustine.com/stories/121705/wor_3523360.shtml). Some have claimed that the milk is helpful for preventing aging diseases such as osteoporosis.
Cheese, known as pule, is made from donkey’s milk. It takes approximately 25 liters of donkey milk to make 1 kilogram of donkey cheese. The average female donkey will produce approximately 1 liter of milk per day. According to a UK news story, Novak Djokovic, a tennis star, bought a year’s supply of donkey cheese from a Serbian donkey dairy. Diners will find the delicacy in his 5 star restaurants, which will be opening later this year in his home country of Serbia. The cheese will be featured on a hamburger, which sells for over 3,000 British pounds, ($4,605 US dollars.)
Some that consume 1 percent donkey milk describe the taste as being similar to skim milk with a sweet, walnut taste. Currently, donkey milk is not available in the U.S. but dehydrated donkey milk is available from various European companies. A liter of dehydrated or powdered donkey milk sells for approximately 54 Euros, which is around $60. A liter of raw donkey milk can only be bought on the farm directly from a donkey dairy and it sells for approximately 15 Euros for 1 liter or $20 US.
Cosmetic products including soaps and lotions are also produced with donkey milk. Due to the protein composition of the milk, it is believed that the cosmetic products may promote healing and tightening of the skin. This idea is similar to what Cleopatra believed, that the milk would keep her skin looking youthful in appearance. The cosmetic products also fetch a premium. A small bar of soap can be sold for about 10 Euros or $12 US.
Since there’s a growing interest in donkey dairies in Italy, there has a growing concern regarding how the donkeys are kept and their overall welfare. The dairy donkeys unlike cattle must keep their foals at side in order to continue to produce milk. This presents a unique condition where the jenny (the female donkey) must produce enough milk for the foal and for production. Currently, the male foals are being sold for human consumption, often to be made into valuable sausage. This creates another interesting element – concern by many about the future of the male foals. Regardless of the dynamic issues that face the donkey dairy industry, it is helping preserve many indigenous breeds of donkeys in Italy and surrounding countries. Some farmers prefer various breeds of donkeys such as the Raguswana or Martana Franca when other farmers may have up to 10 breeds including the small Sardinian donkey. Little research has been conducted to determine which breeds produce the most milk or best composition.
Another challenge facing the donkey dairy industry is a lack of standards for the product. Currently there are no regulations on the milk content and generally it is not sold in a pasteurized format. Also, there are no guidelines available advising donkeys dairy farmers on how to use medication or vaccines. Most farmers are not using any vaccinations or medications to treat an ill donkey. So, if their donkey gets sick they will pull her from production but generally the donkey will not be treated with antibiotics because the withholding period is not known. Because of the limited vaccine and antibiotic use, customers seeking “natural” and “organic” products are oten interested in the milk and by products.
Some farmers are concerned with several issues such as production, disease outbreaks and disease prevention as well as standardazing the industry so that the final product is uniform and predictable. Local and national government officials are working to provide standards for dairy farmers so the product can later be more readily available and sold in public grocery stores.
So, when will donkey dairy products be available in the U.S? Well, consumers can go on line now and purchase the cosmetic products from various individuals manufacturing the soaps, lotions and body washes. One may also be able to find powdered milk online but it’s doubtful that the craze will take over soon in the U.S. due to the industry complexities especially the welfare of the male foals. F