DOH issues warning on breast milk auctions

By Lydia Lin,The China Post

Nowadays, you can buy anything online — including human breast milk.

In recent years, rumors have swirled of online breast milk auctions, with recent discussions on the popular local forum PTT Bulletin Board System (批踢踢實業坊) bringing the alarming trend to the attention of legislators, who in turn, have raised the issue with the Department of Health (DOH).

Unsurprisingly, doctors and health authorities strongly caution against feeding an infant products of dubious origin, much less breast milk purchased online.

“Do not take that risk,” warned Director-General Chiou Shu-ti (邱淑媞) of the DOH’s Bureau of Health Promotion. No one can ensure that the breast milk sold online is tested and whether it has been adequately stored and preserved, she stressed. Disease and viruses can be transmitted to a baby via breast milk, and buying “bad milk” online can increase a mother’s chances of unwittingly exposing her infant to anything from hepatitis to HIV. Further, she described consuming human milk as just “one advantage for the baby.” The act of breastfeeding itself, with the skin-to-skin contact, is equally important in bonding mother and child. However, as human breast milk is not categorized as a “food” capable of being mass produced and distributed, the DOH is unable to regulate its online sale, but merely advise “producers” against the highly risky practice by asking them to take down their posts.

This hasn’t stopped Netizens from stumbling across pumped milk auctions, some even accompanied by pictures. One ad reportedly read, “Two bags of breast milk, 200 cc each, starting at NT$50” followed by a picture of frozen milk packs stacked in a freezer.

Other posts, which have since been removed, gave detailed directions on how to handle the frozen milk after purchase, including a matter-of-fact video demonstrating the process.

The sale itself is not surprising. Human breast milk is renowned for its unparalleled nutritional benefits for newborns; the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, and it was a matter of time before people found ways to cash in on the health hype. However, it is alarming that health authorities and physicians have to remind mothers of the dangers inherent in bargaining for such a sensitive product online, especially as Taiwan currently boasts two official milk banks — at Taipei City Hospital (台北市立聯合醫院) and the DOH’s Taichung Hospital (台中醫院), respectively. The primary purpose of the milk bank is to supply breast milk to babies in neonatal intensive care, said Fang Li-jung (方麗容) director of the Women and Children Department of Taipei City Hospital.

Over 1,200 mothers have donated milk to the Taipei milk bank since its inception, which has in turn helped save the lives of over 1,500 newborns. However, Fang emphasized that on top of having an exceptional medical history, would-be donors must undergo extensive testing procedures. Each bag of milk is again subject to bacteriological exams before it goes into storage, she added.

The extensive procedure may deter mothers who wish to make a quick buck. But it is the motivation of those who purchase human milk online that is just a little suspect because as Chiou stresses, “the risks far outweigh the benefits.”

Clamping down on the odd practices may not be so easy. Kang Jan-jou (康照洲), director general of DOH’s Food and Drug Administration, said as breast milk was never meant to be packaged and sold, regulation is difficult. “To include it in the food category is very strange,” he added.