Monday, May 23, 2011

The Controversy of Breast Milk Sharing for Profit

Breast milk is in high demand these days as we continue to learn about the many benefits of breastfeeding. Preemies in particular benefit greatly from consuming breast milk instead of formula. Across the country, hospitals pay a premium to breast milk banks in order to provide the benefits of breast milk to their most needy newborns. However, there is another type of breast milk sharing that is taking place online that the FDA is increasingly concerned about.

The supply-and-demand principles of breastfeeding are not always so cut and dry. Many mothers find that no matter how much the demand increases, the supply never follows suit. Other times, a mother will produce so much milk that she can regularly fill a freezer with her extra. Both cases are normal and there are a number of possible causes at the root of either issue. The mother with an oversupply can donate her milk to a milk bank, where it undergoes testing for pathogens and diseases. Unfortunately, the mother with low supply can’t just order donor breast milk from the milk bank; she would need to have a doctor’s recommendation based on health issues evident in her child. It might be this disconnect that gave rise to a private online breast milk sharing network, with suppliers charging between $1 and $2.50 per ounce. 

The FDA issued a warning in 2010 against the practice of breast milk sharing due to the possibility of spreading infection if the breast milk is not properly tested. Nevertheless, under the eye of the government breast milk is not considered a bodily fluid, it’s considered a food that can be freely bought and sold. Websites such as Craigslist and Ebay still classify breast milk as a bodily fluid, the sale of which is not permitted. Websites dedicated to the buying and selling of breast milk have emerged but they do not offer any kind of testing before purchasing.

It’s not just mothers looking for breast milk to supplement their newborns on these milk-sharing networks. Breast milk can cure many health issues including pink eye and ulcers and some research has suggested it could even cure cancer, which is why some people are buying breast milk simply for its healing properties. Adoptive parents and single fathers are other groups that often purchase breast milk. 

The increased trading of breast milk for profit is undercutting the nonprofit industry, which sells breast milk at a relatively high price in order to cover the costs of lab tests. Health insurance does not cover the purchase. Untested milk is undercutting the nonprofit price and mothers are actually able to pocket money from the sale. It’s easy to see how there is a growing problem for hospitalized infants who desperately need breast milk. Plus, the time-consuming processing involved with nonprofit milk banks can deter many busy moms.

Despite the problems for nonprofits, the major concern over the trading of untested breast milk online is on the potential danger of exposing infants to pathogens. A study of donated breast milk completed at Stanford University found that 3.3% of donors tested positive for conditions such as syphilis, HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and human T-cell lymphotropic virus.

Another problem with breast milk being bought and sold is the potential for fraud. Donor sites paid mothers for their contributions in the past but quickly learned that the incentive led to misleading practices. In one case, a mother was cutting her breast milk with cow’s milk and there are concerns over drug addicted mothers selling their milk. Regardless, for some mothers with healthy breast milk, the compensation for their extra supply is a welcomed boost in their income.

The issue is clearly complicated and there are no quick, sweeping solutions at hand. There are good reasons to regulate the sale of breast milk, but it would be almost impossible to enforce. Plus, making breast milk more widely available to those who need it is undoubtedly a positive thing. The problem lies with testing and there seems to be a big opening in the marketplace for a for-profit breast milk sharing company that actually completes safety testing on the substance. 

What do you think about the buying and selling of breast milk online?

Banking on Breastmilk [Breastfeeding]
Liquid Gold: The Booming Market for Human Breast Milk [Wired]
The Breast Milk Black Market [Jezebel]