A1 versus A2 Milk: Whose Side Are You On?

Published: 22 Oct 2003

By Ivan Fernandez

In September 2003, New Zealand-based A2 Corporation announced a strategic alliance with US-based IdeaSphere Inc. to introduce A2 milk to the North American market.

What makes this move significant?

A closer look at A2 milk and the troubled history of its conception and commercialization will help make clear the case.

The A2 Milk Argument

Based on the genetic make-up of cows, beta casein (one of the proteins in cow’s milk) can be found in variants.

Starting in 1994, over a five-year period, New Zealand scientist, Dr Corran McLachlan studied milk consumption and heart disease prevalence in different countries. His research led him to claim that there was a strong link between the consumption of the A1 variant of beta casein and Ischaemic heart disease, childhood Type 1 diabetes and other ailments. In elucidating his claim, he held that Finland's high rate of heart disease could be linked to the fact that it had the highest consumption of A1 in milk in the world. Citing another example, he pointed out that Japan, which showed a low rate of heart disease, had low levels of A1 in milk.

He went on to file his own patent for both the intellectual property that established this link and for a method of producing pure A2 milk (cows' milk that is free of A1 beta casein). In February 2000, along with entrepreneur Howard Paterson, he established A2 Corporation Limited to commercialize A2 milk.

The Rough Road to Commercialization

Certain cow breeds, such as Friesians, produce mostly A1 milk, while others such as Guernseys, produce mainly A2 milk. According to A2 Corporation, 20 to 45 percent of dairy cows in Australia and New Zealand produce milk with the A2 protein. The balance produces milk with either the more prevalent A1 protein or a mixture of A1 and A2. The company has developed a patented DNA test, using a hair plucked from the cow's tail, which identifies whether a cow carries A2 beta-casein proteins. The company has used this discovery to develop herds that produce milk with only A2 proteins.

Dairy giant Fonterra, which has a virtual monopoly over the New Zealand dairy market, questioned the validity of Dr McLachlan’s claims, which they stated were inconclusive. The dispute became far more animated when, in November 2002, A2 Corporation filed a court case charging Fonterra with misleading consumers by not disclosing health risks associated with A1 milk consumption. A2 Corporation asked the court under the Fair Trading Act to order Fonterra to issue health warnings on its A1 milk outlining the risks of Type 1 diabetes, heart disease, autism and schizophrenia. Subsequently, legal action was not pursued and A2 Corporation stated it would leave labelling issues to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.

With Fonterra remaining unconvinced of the asserted benefits of converting to A2 milk, the first product using the technology licensed from A2 Corporation was launched in Australia in March 2003. However, the Australian launch was followed closely by the launch in the New Zealand market through the Ridge Group for the North Island and International Dairy Ventures for the South Island.

The A1 versus A2 debate took a new turn in May 2003 with the New Zealand’s Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) and the Ministry of Health reaffirming that milk was safe and that it was still part of a balanced diet. However, even while it stated that there was no evidence to date that would necessitate a change in their position on milk, the NZFSA also requested former Medical Director of the New Zealand Heart Foundation, Boyd Swinburn, to carry out a review of available research on A1 and A2 milk.

A1 versus A2: No Clear Winner Yet

In the final analysis, what choice does the consumer make? Skeptics of the A2 milk project point out that instead of choosing between A1 and A2 milk, consumers need to focus on far more important risk-eliminating action-points such as regular exercise, reduced intake of saturated fats in diet or giving up smoking. However, it cannot be denied that the A2 milk story does provide fodder for further debate and most certainly merits further enquiry.

What is clear today is that the potential damage to consumer confidence (in milk of the more common A1 casein type) appears frighteningly significant. With milk consumption volumes showing a declining trend in many countries across the globe (as a result of competition from other beverages), the ramifications of any erosion in consumer confidence could be far-reaching for the global dairy industry.

Despite the untimely death of both of its founders, Howard Paterson and Dr Corran McLachlan, A2 Corporation has ambitious plans to bring A2 milk to many more countries across the globe including the United Kingdom. According to A2 Corporation, the recently concluded US agreement represents around 40 per cent of the world market for A2.

While biotechnology firms, dairy farmers, dairy processors and the public continue to examine the question of health-risks linked to A1 milk consumption, the fact remains that conclusive proof based on rigorous scientific study is sorely lacking. The onus lies on the scientific community to provide credible research that can illuminate and enlighten key stakeholders and the public through unambiguous findings.

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