Breast milk sold online may contain bacteria, researchers warn
CHICAGO — Human breast milk is sold for babies on several websites for a few dollars an ounce, but a study says buyer beware: Testing showed it can contain potentially dangerous bacteria including salmonella.
The warning was issued by researchers who bought and tested 101 breast milk samples sold by women on one popular site. Three-fourths of the samples contained high amounts of bacteria that could potentially sicken babies, the researchers found. They did not identify the website.
The results are “pretty scary,” said Dr. Kenneth Boyer, pediatrics chief at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who was not involved in the study. “Just imagine if the donor happens to be a drug user. You don't know.”
The research cites several cases published in medical literature of infants getting sick from strangers' milk.
Breast milk can be provided through milk banks, whose clients include hospitals. They charge fees but screen donors and pasteurize donated milk to kill any germs.
With Internet sites, “you have very few ways to know for sure what you are getting is really breast milk and that it's safe to feed your baby,” said Sarah Keim, the lead author and a researcher at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “Because the consequences can be serious, it is not a good idea to obtain breast milk in this way.”
The advice echoes a 2010 recommendation from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
“When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk,” the FDA says. “In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby.”
The researchers believe theirs is the first study to test the safety of Internet-sold milk, although several others have documented bacteria in mothers' own milk or in milk bank donations. Some bacteria may not be harmful, but salmonella is among germs that could pose a threat to infants, Boyer said.
Sources for bacteria found in the study aren't known but could include donors' skin, breast pumps used to extract milk or contamination from improper shipping methods, Keim said.
The study was published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
There are many milk-sharing sites online, including several that provide milk for free. Sellers or donors tend to be new mothers who produce more milk than their own babies can consume. Users include mothers who have difficulty breast-feeding and don't want to use formula and people with adopted infants.
Breanna Clemons of Dickinson, N.D., is a donor who found a local woman who needed breast milk through one of the online sites where milk is offered free.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Ewww, it's weird,' but they haven't been in a situation where they didn't want their child to have formula,” or couldn't produce enough milk, Clemons said. She said she shared her medical history with the recipient.
Clemons said the woman has a healthy 9-month-old who “loves my milk.”