Online breast milk sales: There’s no such thing as a (bacteria)-free lunch

By Larry Rhein, MD, Division of Newborn Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital

All pediatricians can agree that breast milk is the best food for infants. But sometimes, parents are unable to provide breast milk on their own. To fill this void, a new secondary market has developed where mothers who can produce additional breast milk do so and sell it online.

But selling breast milk for feeding infants is different than selling used baby clothes or toys; food has to meet minimum safety standards.

A new article in Pediatrics provides some interesting information related to the potential safety of breast milk sold on the Internet. The researchers looked at bacterial counts in samples of breast milk bought online and compared them to the types and amounts of bacteria found in unpasteurized samples donated to a traditional milk bank.

They showed that the samples from the Internet had higher levels of bacteria and were more likely to have types of bacteria associated with serious infections in infants. (It’s important to note that in the comparison, even samples from the milk bank had some bacteria, including some of the disconcerting types.)

Just having certain types of bacteria present in milk doesn’t guarantee that it will lead to a serious infection, and similarly, there’s no minimum amount of bacteria exposure to a baby in order to guarantee illness. But on the other hand, it’s impossible to get infections from bacteria if you’re never exposed to it in the first place, and higher levels make infections more likely.

So what’s the take home message? We know that the techniques used when pumping breast milk (using more hygienic practices, etc.) and the shipping and timing methods of how the milk reaches the buyer can all contribute to increased contamination in breast milk. Those considering donating should learn best hygienic practices for collection and use the safest shipping mechanisms to ensure safety. And buyers need to be aware of these factors when shopping for breast milk online to make sure the risk of infection is as low as possible—that way their child gets all the benefits of breast milk without adding unnecessary risks.

Currently, the FDA does not regulate the exchange of human milk. Perhaps new data like the findings of this study will lead to more rules, but in the meantime anyone buying breast milk should ask about hygienic pumping practice and shipping details when considering where and when to buy it.