Alicia Silverstone caused quite a stir recently with the unveiling of her new breast milk sharing program earlier this summer, prompting professionals on The Daily News and ABC News to urge milk donors to consider proper screening procedures. Despite the sudden interest, the breast milk trade isn't a new phenomenon. Sharing of human milk has existed as long as babies have been around, with early Egyptian royalty being the first to regularly compensate wet nurses for their efforts. Even the World Health Organization, which many mothers consider the go-to authority on breastfeeding, has listed milk banks as an equal substitute to a mother's own milk.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America was created in 1985 to provide a sterile environment for milk donation with an in-depth screening and pasteurization process. However, these expensive procedures can lead to breast milk prices of $3.50 per ounce or higher, a steep asking price that isn't covered by most insurance.
This is where the "underground" breast milk agencies come in. With breastfeeding being increasingly seen as a necessity and formula rebuffed as an unequal alternative, parents who are unable to breastfeed look to obtain breast milk directly from new moms. They can get it in person or through various online distribution sites, unscreened and unsterilized, at a cheaper price than through standardized organizations. Buyers can ask dietary and health questions informally via email, or try to negotiate screening tests after building a relationship with the seller.
For a seller of breast milk, the process is equally strange. I personally had an excess of milk with my first son and thought about selling it to offset child-rearing costs, but was surprised at the bizarre characters I encountered. A single glance at the breast milk buying forums on Only the Breastreveals health-obsessed workout nuts seeking to buy human milk to increase stamina, men who want to consume it for erotic purposes and even a few home chefs looking to adventure into new culinary territory with breast milk cheese and fondue. No thanks. I wound up donating to a friend in need only to ironically find myself in the seller's market when I couldn't produce enough for my second child.
No formal government regulations on the breast milk sharing process exist yet, though the Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about the potential for milk contamination. Advocates of breast feeding and health officials alike are waiting to see when and if the government takes a more formal stance. -By Chelsea Day