An online market has sprung up to supply the enormous demand for what is being called liquid gold—donor breast milk.
But let the buyer beware: Unscreened donors, unsafe collection and shipment practices, and lack of pasteurization is producing a supply that is potentially dangerous to infants.
This week researchers published a study in the journal Pediatrics showing that three-fourths of the online-purchased breast milk they tested was contaminated with high amounts of bacteria with the potential to sicken babies. With internet sites, “you have very few ways to know for sure what you are getting is safe to feed your baby,” said Sarah Keim, lead author and researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “Because the consequences can be serious, it is not a good idea to obtain breast milk in this way.”
Kiem’s group obtained 101 samples from OnlyTheBreast.com—a Web site dubbed the Craigslist of breast milk. The site, launched in 2009, allows mothers who overproduce to sell their breast milk to mothers who don’t make enough of their own, choose not to nurse, or adopted an infant. Prolific donors could make as much as $20,000 a year. The going rate of $3 an ounce may seem expensive considering a 1-month-old baby consumes 25 ounces a day, but the price from a certified milk bank is as much as $6 an ounce. But the reliably safe breast milk from milk banks is almost all earmarked for hospitals and premature babies.
However, online donors are not adequately screened for the diseases that can be transmitted through breast milk including HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and human T-cell lymphotrophic virus. The milk is not pasteurized. Samples from the new study contained colonies of bacteria including coliform, staphylococcus, and streptococcus. Most worrisome, 20 percent of the online samples contained cytomegalovirus (CMV), which can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies. Researchers concluded that poor collection, storage, and shipping practices were to blame.
The FDA doesn’t regulate the donation or sale of breast milk, but since 2010 has recommended against feeding babies breast milk acquired from individuals or through the internet.
OnlyTheBreast.com was unavailable online for some time after the report was released Monday, and now carries a disclaimer in red letters: “Studies show that unpasteurized milk may have bacteria. IT IS ADVISED THAT ALL MILK MUST BE PASTEURIZED BEFORE USE.”
Website officials told NBC News they intend to halt informal breast milk exchanges and revamp their organization. “We have made the decision to transition away from offering breast milk classified ads and in the near future completely remove them,” founder Glenn Snow said in a statement.