Samples of human breast milk purchased through Internet milk-sharing sites were frequently contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and exhibited high overall bacterial growth, a recent study found. Consumption of milk obtained from these largely unregulated websites can introduce risks for infants, especially those born preterm or with immunecompromised status, the lead researcher says.
Today’s new mothers are strongly encouraged to breast feed after research has shown breast milk protects infants from infections and other ailments. However, many mothers are not always successful in the practice of breast feeding. Some mothers are also physically unable to produce their own breast milk due to health complications. In addition, there are adoptive parents and single fathers. All are looking to provide this nourishment for their infants—some of which are relying on donated or purchased milk to do so.
“Obtaining breast milk from an unfamiliar source poses a number of risks; our study just focused on the risk of bacterial and viral illness, but there are others as well, and you can’t know for sure whether the milk you’re receiving is safe. This is not a recommended practice,” says Sarah A. Keim, PhD, MA, MS, of the Center for Behavioral Health, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and the division of epidemiology, department of pediatrics, at Ohio State University in Columbus. Dr. Keim is first author of the study, published in the journal Pediatrics.
The study authors compared the levels of microbial contamination in 101 samples of human milk purchased through a popular U.S. milk-sharing website with those from 20 unpasteurized samples of milk donated to a milk bank. They found that three-quarters of the Internet milk samples would have failed Human Milk Banking Association of North America standards for feeding without pasteurization. The Internet samples had higher mean total aerobic, total Gram-negative, coliform, and Staphylococcus species counts than the milk bank samples.
Dr. Keim says the study is not meant to discourage the use of breast feeding, but rather to point up the risks of acquiring human milk in this manner.
“Breast milk still is the best thing for babies, and providing your own milk for your own baby is still the first best thing to do,” she says. “This is a pretty unique situation where money is being exchanged, and shipping, storage, and handling are involved, plus an unfamiliar source for the milk. All of those things seem to have an influence on the extent of bacterial contamination that we’re seeing.”
Dr. Keim notes, and an FDA spokesman confirms, that this type of exchange is largely unregulated.
“Unlike other regulated products involving living human donors, such as blood or tissues, human milk sold or donated is collected and initially stored in the donor’s home. These unique collection and storage circumstances raise novel and difficult questions concerning the appropriate regulatory oversight related to donor human milk,” says Morgan Liscinsky, an FDA officer in an email. The FDA held an advisory committee meeting in December 2010 to evaluate the risks and benefits of breast milk banking and continues to monitor the issue. “We continue to be concerned about Internet transactions involving breast milk,” he says, and the FDA recommends against the practice.