National Consumers League

Breast milk for sale?

The New York Times reported recently ("Breast Milk Becomes a Commodity, With Mothers Caught Up in Debate") that companies are buying breast milk from mothers, condensing it down and selling it to hospitals for treatment for extremely premature infants in intensive care. The milk is tested for viral infections, nicotine, drugs of abuse, dilution, and adulteration. The women supplying the milk must take blood tests for infectious disease, provide notes from the doctor saying they and their baby are healthy, and must furnish DNA samples, which helps to ensure that the milk is theirs. All of which is good public policy and makes sense.

Breastfeeding is good for babies and good for mothers. Kids who are breastfed have much lower incidence of allergies and a recent Brazilian study found that they have higher IQs and are more likely to earn more. For moms, breastfeeding seems to reduce the incidence of cancer.

There’s been a lot of chatter after the Times article about selling breast milk. Another mother weighed in as well, in a piece called “Give Breast Milk,” noting that Prolacta Bioscience and Medolac are two companies that buy the milk, fortify it, concentrate it, and sell it to hospitals.  While they pay very little for the milk  - apparently $1 an ounce, compared to what they sell it to hospitals for, $180 an ounce. Sounds like an awful big mark up, even for what they do to make it effective for treating preemies.  I have no problem with women selling their breast milk, but they should just get paid decently for it. 

Which brings me back to the original issue. Anything that gets more women to breastfeed is – in my view – a good thing. So paying for breast milk, especially from healthy women of limited means, seems like a fine idea. Men are paid for their sperm; why shouldn’t women sell their breast milk?  And as the obesity epidemic grows, breastfeeding can burn up to 900 calories a day and help women take off their pregnancy weight very fast. All of which seems like a win-win: Mom breastfeeds her own baby, that’s good, and then make a little extra money by pumping and selling the milk, which eventually gets used by premature infants struggling to get bigger and healthier.

I realize that not everyone agrees. The Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association is quoted in the article saying, “We are very concerned that women will be coerced into diverting milk that they would otherwise feed their own babies.”  Fair enough, but what if paying women for their milk increased the number who breastfeed significantly? I think that is worth the relatively benign downside the critics have cited. We just need to ensure that women are getting a fair price for their breast milk contributions.