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Chinese cities wake up to a new superfood: yak milk

October 6, 2008

Tania Branigan in Lhasa
The Observer,
October 5 2008

A pioneering Chinese company is to market pasteurised Tibetan yak
milk in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, in the hope that it will
become a new superfood in the world's most populous country.

At 24 yuan (£2) for a small 250ml carton, Feifan - meaning
'uncommonly good' - costs several times as much as cow's milk. 'It's
very natural, green, pure and high-quality. That's our big selling
point - we aim at the high-end market,' said Ding Pengcheng of the
Treasure of the Plateau Yak Milk Company. Over the next three years,
the firm is to spend millions to crack the domestic and international
markets, with the help of state investment. Yaks produce fewer than
300 litres of milk a year, while cows yield 35 times as much. The
firm pays Tibetan farmers 16 yuan or more per litre; eight times the
price of standard milk.

The China Nutrition Society, a Ministry of Health-backed research
institute, claims the amino acids, calcium, and vitamin A in yak milk
are considerably higher than in cow's milk. Its appeal depends as
much on the mystique of its origins as its nutritional qualities.
Feifan is undergoing extra safety checks because of China's recent
milk contamination scandal. Yet in the long run such concerns could
boost the desire for products that combine modern hygiene with
unsullied, back-to-the-land imagery.

Tsering Droma is a typical Tibetan herder who can now look forward to
tapping the Chinese market. Born into a herding family, she tends 30
yaks on steep slopes near the Karola pass.

The animals are central to Tibetan culture: their butter is melted
into tea and fuels the lamps that light monasteries. Dung keeps fires
burning; bones are carved into beads. Yaks provide Droma and her
family with everything they need. 'Female yaks are very important to
us: we can get milk, make butter and cheese and get extra money by
selling it. For the males, they can be used for transport,' she said.
'We can sell the yak skins and the meat and hair. All the parts can
be sold. Then we buy things like grain.'

But 100 miles away in Lhasa, the Treasure of the Plateau company is
transforming this hand-to-mouth livelihood into a serious business.
It is marketing the traditional staple as a superfood for
aspirational middle-class households across China and beyond. Steam
seeps from the pipes of its Tetrapak production line as it heats
gallon after gallon of milk to 130C. In 2003, the firm sold just over
2m yuans worth of goods; this year it is on course to bring in up to
90m yuan. Each day the local market consumes between three and six
tonnes of its yoghurt.

The company's first batches of milk arrived in bowls, carried on
herders' backs, and often with the unwelcome additions of insects and
yak hair. Now they come in clean containers, usually delivered by
motorbike or car - proof, says the company, that it is raising local
incomes. That does not make it immune from controversy surrounding
economic development. Its expansion into markets around China would
be all but impossible without the Tibet-Qinghai rail line, which
critics say has damaged the environment and speeded the erosion of
Tibetan culture. Seventy per cent of the firm's 110 staff are
Tibetan, but only a few are in senior posts. 'Our company carries out
a lot of training for our Tibetan staff, but most of them don't have
higher, college-level education,' Ding said.

At the least, the company, and the government money behind it, are
supporting long-impoverished herders. The authorities have been
heavily criticised for forcibly settling nomads. But this state
investment is helping some to increase their incomes without having
to abandon their heritage.

It is what officials call 'development with Tibetan characteristics'.
And yaks are as Tibetan as they come.
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