A new study has found that the sale of breast milk—an unregulated, cottage industry—may involve product containing high levels of dangerous, even deadly, bacteria.
The journal, Pediatrics, reports that breast milk purchased from at least two fairly well visited websites, were often tainted with high bacteria levels that included Salmonella. According to the report, the pathogen amounts were sufficient to sicken a child, wrote The New York Times. “The study makes you worry,” Dr. Richard A. Polin, the director of neonatology and perinatology at Columbia University, who was not involved in the research, told the Times. “This is a potential cause of disease. Even with a relative, it’s probably not a good idea to share.”
Research has found that breast milk protects babies from infections and other maladies and health care providers encourage the use of breast milk over formula; however, families who have adopted and women who have undergone mastectomies or who do not produce sufficient milk rely on formula and, now, breast milk, according to the Times.
So-called “milk-sharing” websites contain classified advertisements from women who are looking to donate, purchase, or sell breast milk with prices as low as $1.50 an ounce, the Times reported. In many cases, the sites feature women simply seeking to donate breast milk.
For their study, researchers analyzed 100 breast milk samples purchased from a public milk-sharing website and found that three out of every four samples contained either high levels of bacterial growth or disease-causing bacteria, including fecal contamination, according to USA Today. The germs were probably caused by poor hygiene during milk collection, using unclean containers, using unsanitary breast milk pump parts, or compromised shipping practices, epidemiologist Sarah Keim, lead author of the study said, wrote USA Today.
The study also revealed that 19 percent of the sellers did not use an appropriate cooling method, such as dry ice, when shipping. Keim says that it is “totally normal” for certain bacteria to be present in human breast milk; some are “very important and healthy for babies and the development of their immune system and digestive system,” according to USA Today. Keim is a principal investigator with the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
In all the samples analyzed, the Web-purchased milk contained higher bacteria counts and were likelier to contain disease-related bacteria, when compared to milk banks (which have fairly strict guidelines), prior to pasteurization, according to USA Today:
- 72 percent of the web purchased samples contained detectable gram-negative bacteria (bacteria associated with bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, meningitis, and fecal contamination) compared to 35 percent from milk bank samples
- 63 percent of the web purchased samples tested positive for staphylococcus, compared to 25 percent of milk bank samples
- 36 of web purchased samples tested positive for streptococcus, compared to 20 percent of milk bank samples
- 3 percent of the web purchases samples were contaminated with Salmonella; none of the milk bank samples contained the Salmonella pathogen
“This study confirms what people have suspected in terms of online milk purchases,” says Anne Eglash, a family medicine physician with University of Wisconsin Health in Mt. Horeb and a co-founder of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “You don’t know what you’re getting, you don’t know the quality, how honest people are about how old the milk is, and so many other issues. It’s important to realize that this may not be the safest way to get breast milk when you don’t have enough,” she told USA Today.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against feeding babies breast milk from individuals or through the Internet; the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages feeding pre-term infants human breast milk received from unscreened donors, according to USA Today.