WELLINGTON - Anchor brand distributor New Zealand Dairy Foods says it has taken a licence to sell A2 milk should research verify claims that it potentially has health benefits for some people.
A Dunedin biotechnology company, which says it is gearing up for the production in Australia of A2 milk - without the protein beta casein A1 - has licensed Dairy Foods to sell the milk here.
A2 Corporation director Howard Paterson said last week that A2 milk could be in New Zealand shops within nine months.
He told the Dexcel dairying conference at Ruakura, near Hamilton, that the company had awarded a licence to a New Zealand dairy company and was arranging production of pure A2 milk in Australia.
His company also intends to start an A2 Corporation arm this month in preparation for an international launch of its technology.
Ondine Waddell, a spokeswoman for Dairy Foods - producer of consumer brands Fernleaf, Anchor, Fresh n' Fruity and Primo - confirmed the company had New Zealand rights to selling milks based on the A2 Corporation's intellectual property.
But she said Dairy Foods had not yet developed a product using A2's technology.
A2 Corporation has developed identification and selection methods - based on geno-typing through DNA sequences - that allows the production of milk drinks that exclude beta casein A1.
Cheese and butter do not carry the protein variant.
Research has suggested a relationship between juvenile diabetes - which often makes child victims insulin-dependent - and milk consumption by people genetically disposed to the disease.
The milk has been isolated to some breeds of cows, usually Friesian animals, that have a protein called A1 beta casein in their milk. The rest have an A2 protein.
When the diabetes research was first publicised the Dairy Board and the Child Health Research Foundation shared the intellectual property from work by Professor Bob Elliott, who called for cows with the A1 protein to be phased out in favour of cows with the A2 protein.
The Dairy Board has filed two patent applications for the right to produce milk without beta casein A1, the first in 1994 and a second in 1998 in partnership with the Child Health Research Foundation. But the Dairy Board has not yet found robust scientific proof that drinking A2 milk will avert juvenile diabetes.
In the meantime, Auckland chemical engineer Corran McLachlan has extended the research to seek possible links between A1 milk and coronary disease, and his work has been taken up by A2 Corporation.
The A2 board has since paid $8 million to the foundation for its half share with the Dairy Board on the patent rights.
The payment means the corporation half-owns rights to the diabetes-A1 research and all the patents for selecting cattle without A1 in the production of milk claimed not to trigger coronary heart disease.
Mr Paterson told the conference that within two weeks all New Zealand and Australian farmers would receive information on how to switch to A2 milk production. Farming groups in Ireland, Holland and Britain would also get information.
Mr Paterson, a South Island farmer who founded the corporate transtasman dairy farmer Tasman Agriculture, and is one of Australasia's biggest agribusiness operators, said A2 milk would initially be more expensive than other cows' milk.
Bulk-testing of cows for A2 production had started in Australia. Mr Paterson would not say if the cows were on his farms there, but some do have separate A1 and A2 herds.
In New Zealand, the Maniototo-based company Big Sky Dairy, which is building its herd of 2000 cows this year up to 6000 cows, is looking at eventually producing A2 milk.
Mr Paterson is an investor in the farm, and a fellow director, Ewan Carr, said the operation was expected to be one of the first suppliers of A2 milk when the local market required it.
An indication of the A2 Corporation's marketing strategy can be found in corporation manager David Parker's description of A2 milk as safer to drink than the A1 milk.
Mr Paterson also claims that "within a few years we will all be drinking A2 milk."
His comments are worrying some health and nutrition workers, farmers and dairy industry marketers who fear the claimed "benefits" of A2 milk could cause some families to cut their consumption of conventional dairy products and, in doing so, deny young children milk's proven health benefits.
But Mr Paterson said that rather than being catastrophic for New Zealand dairying, the increasing suspicions about the A1 protein could be turned into an opportunity.