The Breast Milk Black Market


Victoria’s Secret has convinced many people that breasts mainly exist to be pushed up and presented in an overpriced, lacey package for one’s sexual enjoyment. Of course, their real function is to make milk that nourishes babies — and if you’re willing to sell this precious body fluid on the black market, you could make thousands.

An article in Wired reveals there’s a massive need for human milk, and there are two basic routes for getting it to babies (and adults, but we’ll address the seedier side of the business later here). The more traditional method involves moms donating their excess product to non-profit milk banks. The milk is then screened for things like drugs, hepatitis, and HIV, and pasteurized. For the most part, this milk winds up being sold to hospitals for about $4 an ounce, and fed to sick and premature babies. There’s also a newer company called Prolacta Bioscience, which turns a profit by condensing nutrients from donor breast milk into a syrup. For $135 a day, hospitals can feed sick infants this fortifier, mixed with milk from the child’s own mother.

Then there’s the shadier business of women simply selling their milk or swapping it with no middleman. In addition to groups that organize free milk exchanges, like Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets, there’s now a site that functions as the classified ads for breast milk. The site Only the Breast was founded about a year and a half ago by Glenn and Chelly Snow after Chelly gave birth and noticed posts online by new moms who either couldn’t produce enough milk for their babies, or had a freezer full of milk in Ziploc bags. The decided to start their own site, since Craigslist and eBay have banned the sale of body fluids (much to the chagrin of breast milk enthusiasts and people who take the vampire trend way too seriously).

Today there are about 3,000 people who use the site at no cost. Milk usually goes for around $1 to $2.50 an ounce, and one young mom told Wired she stands to make $20,000 if she sells for a year. Posts can be broken down by categories, based on the age of the baby, location, or special diets like vegan or gluten-free. Then there are the less obvious sections like “Discount $1.00 or Less,” “Fat Babies,” and “Men Buying Breast Milk.” Ostensibly, not everyone who posts in that last category is looking for a sexy bag of frozen breast milk to satisfy some fetish. Adults post saying they need human milk to treat a variety of medical ailments, from psoriasis to gastric bypass surgury. We’re not sure what’s going on with this guy, but he does seem like quite the gentleman:

I am a clean, respectful, college educated business man in the Houston area. I am hoping to find a regular supply of freshly pumped breast milk. Please be clean, sane and healthy. Kind regards, Sam

Meanwhile, sales offers from moms usually note that their baby is healthy, and occasionally offer discount buy 10 bags, get one free, etc. Some feature photos of babies or the women themselves (with a hint of cleavage in the shot, natch).

It’s easy to see the appeal of being able to make a little extra money for diapers while supplying a product that could improve the health of babies and sick adults. (And perhaps the sexual satisfaction of others, if you’re not one to judge.) However, the FDA has taken on the milk market, mainly by issuing a “stern press release warning” in November 2010:

“When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested, or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby.”

There’s never been a reported case of online breast milk-related illness, and selling online allows suppliers to turn a profit and buyers to obtain milk at less than half the cost of regulated milk. Wired also notes, “those who use these sites say it’s not really the government’s place to step in.” It’s an appealing thought — “Keep your laws off my bodily fluids!” — until you think about what could be in the liquids seeping out of strangers. Recently Stanford University researchers examined 1,091 women who applied to donate milk and found 3.3% were rejected for having syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and human T-cell lymphotropic virus in their blood. These diseases could also be in the women’s breast milk, and there’s an excellent chance that they’re floating around in some of the milk sold online.

Kim Updegrove, executive director of the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin, says:

“Women are convinced that breast milk is somehow different from blood and that there aren’t any risks in sharing it with another woman’s baby, but it’s an incredibly risky practice. Breast milk is a body fluid. Would you consider cutting open a vein and giving a direct transfusion?”

The moms currently selling and swapping breast milk definitely have good intentions, and at first it seems like a great idea. Something your body produces naturally can be turned into cash, without the hassle of waking up in an ice water bath with no kidney. However, the logic of selling your breast milk in the same way you unload your old futon falls apart with the blood comparison. Our natural instinct may be to keep the government as far as possible from our reproductive system and its milky byproducts, but few people are angry at “the man” for trying to remove hepatitis C from our blood transfusions.

Liquid Gold: The Booming Market for Human Breast Milk [Wired]
Only The Breast

Image via MBWTE Photos/Shutterstock.

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