I witnessed the power of breast milk -- as a magic health elixir and apparent social lubricant -- earlier this month when my friend, while playing with her young son, was approached by a stranger and asked if she was breast-feeding. It went something like this:
“Hey, this is a crazy question, but are you breastfeeding?”
“Can I have some of your breast milk? My son has an eye infection.”
“Sure. Grab me a clean shot glass.”
It was that simple. They exchanged pleasantries about their kids and parted ways. I was amazed that the whole thing went so smoothly, since strangers asking you to give them something from inside your body is, you know, kind of intense. “Breast milk is really good for eye stuff,” my friend explained, then turned her attention back to whatever it was we were talking about before.
But breast milk isn’t just being traded between moms at bars or through the breast milk forums and donation centers where this happens on a slightly larger scale, it’s becoming a lucrative business for biotech firms.
As the New York Times reported Friday, venture capitalists have poured more than $40 million into a company, Prolacta Bioscience, that buys breast milk and turns it into a high-protein formula for extremely premature babies. The nourishment doesn’t come cheap -- the concentrated milk sells for thousands of dollars.
Welcome to Big Breast Milk, where essential nourishment and the myriad health benefits can be yours -- for a considerable markup. “We are at the tip of the iceberg for milk,” Bruce German, director of the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, and chairman of a company that develops nutritional products from breast milk, told the Times.
On its face, the transaction seems win-win. There’s a need, the highly concentrated product helps sick babies and parents make a little extra cash on the side. But some community groups and breast-feeding advocates view these emerging ventures as exploitative, particularly of low-income women of color.
After Medolac Laboratories, in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation, announced its intentions to buy milk from mothers in Detroit, the Black Mothers’ Breastfeeding Association wrote an open letter posing a series of straightforward questions to the company about why it had decided to launch the campaign in Detroit and to explain how it would benefit the community.
The organization also criticized Medolac for failing to consult with local community groups already working to support breastfeeding mothers before dropping in with its campaign:
As a group of mothers, community activists, and lawmakers in the greater Detroit area, we are writing to you in the spirit of open dialogue about your company’s recent attempts to recruit African-American and low-income women in Detroit to sell their breast milk to your company, Medolac Laboratories.
We are troubled by your targeting of African-American mothers, and your focus on Detroit in particular. We are concerned that this initiative has neither thoroughly factored in the historical context of milk sharing nor the complex social and economic challenges facing Detroit families. It is also troubling that no community organizations serving or advocating for African-American breastfeeding families in Detroit have been consulted in the development of such a program that is meant to benefit those families.
Kiddada Green, the founder and executive director of the organization, told Michigan Radio in January that the problem wasn’t necessarily with paying women for their breast milk, the issue was that the company was working without any input from people already doing work to support breast-feeding mothers. "I'm concerned with those who advocate savior behavior, and never consult with those that they want to save," she explained.
Green’s organization requested a meeting with Medolac to discuss these concerns, but the company backed out of the plan entirely, calling the environment “toxic” in a press release announcing the news.
As mothers and community activists continue to navigate the ethical quandaries of breast milk as big business, the industry is growing. As the Times notes, several other companies are now paying mothers for breast milk and the market seems to be growing. As the founder of a milk-selling website told the paper, “It’s a fascinating industry, and it’s brand new.”