The Business of Breastmilk: Human Milk Donor Exploitation

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Episode Transcript

May 14, 2021

Human milk donor exploitation is a thing?!

This is Maureen Farrell and Heather O’Neal. And this is The Milk Minute. We’re midwives and lactation professionals bringing you the most up-to-date evidence for all things lactation. So you can feel more confident about feeding your baby, body positivity, relationships, and mental health. Plus, we laugh a little or a lot along the way.

So join us for another episode. Hello, everybody. Welcome back to The Milk Minute Podcast. Oh, Hey. I’m so excited for this one cause I didn’t do any research. This was my episode to research. And if you don’t know me by now, I get pretty fired up about different things. And when I heard that people were being exploited for their breast milk, I had to look a little bit deeper.

So we are going to talk about human milk exploitation today. Actually I had to hold back because I feel the same way. And I was like, but no, you know, it’s more fun if I know nothing about it when we start, cause then you guys can hear my genuine shock and outrage. Yeah join Maureen as she, as she gets mad.

But I think this is really important for everybody to be aware of that this is happening. We use this platform for supporting you in breastfeeding, but also in general, helping people understand and appreciate their bodies for what they do and releasing any shame surrounding breastfeeding. And we talk a lot about setting boundaries and none of those things fit inside of a milk exploitation situation.

Yeah. And I’m excited to hear like, just what is a milk exploitation situation. So many different ways. So, but before we do that, we’re going to answer a listener question. Yeah. And then after we’re going to do an award in the alcove, so stick around. Could be you. It really could be, it could be anyone.

All right this week, our question. Nice, simple, short, easy. I just had to make it longer by saying that. We have a question from Kelly and it just says, “what can I take for a headache while breastfeeding?” Girl, you can take Tylenol. You can take ibuprofen. You can take mag oxide. Yeah. The one you want to stay away from with this as aspirin.

You don’t want to take acetylsalicylic acid because some of those pass through breast milk. It’s this whole situation we don’t want to see with infants. Yeah, just, just avoid aspirin. Yeah. So check your labels, ibuprofen and acetaminophen or A-OKAY. And if you have a headache, that can’t be controlled with those things, you need to call your provider.

And also let them know that you are breastfeeding because they might try to give you something that actually could hurt your supply, like Benadryl. And there’s a couple other things that they might throw in there, but we never like to see headaches that can’t be fixed with Tylenol or Ibuprofen. Especially in the first six weeks, postpartum where like preeclampsia can still happen and it’s scary. Yeah. We need you to get your blood pressure checked and just make sure everything’s cool. So that’s our tip for you there. Okay.

Hey Heather, can I take a minute to tell you about Happi Tummi? Oh, I really wish you would. Happi tummi has natural products to help resolve the symptoms of colic, gas, or constipation for babies. Oh, well that sounds great for babies that just are constantly in pain and discomfort from tummy troubles.

And it happens, you know, as your baby is adjusting to its new environment, it’s tummy is going to get upset sometimes just like yours or mine. Yeah. And these products are natural and external. So no drops or drugs. Don’t even get me started on the gas drops. So, if you’re interested in that, you can look up these wonderful, soft tummy wraps for baby.

They combined heat and herbal treatment. And honestly, they’re wonderful. I want one for me. And if you want one for you too, they have adult products too. No way! Yeah! Yeah. That’s awesome. My cramps have been a little bit much lately. Absolutely. So how do I get one? Head over to¬†HappiTummi.com¬†and use our discount code MILKMINUTE10 for 10% off.

Oh, thank you. I’m going to go buy myself a menstrual cramp wrap. Make your tummy happy. Such a happy tummy.

All right, here we go. You ready? Yay! Buckle up. I’m ready. I’m ready. Buckle up, buttercup. Here we go. All right. So you might be asking yourself, how can someone be exploited for their milk? So when you exploit somebody, you’re basically taking a vulnerability of theirs and or something they have to offer and using it for your own financial gain or control, you know, it’s, it’s a lot to do with control, but either way, somebody is benefiting and somebody is getting taken advantage of.

Should I Google the definition of exploitation? Yes. Okay. Are you ready? Exploitation- the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work or the action of making use of and benefiting from resources. Yeah. So both of those things, so both of those things apply here, right?

So the resource is milk and the work is you pumping it, turning blood into milk. Yeah. So that’s work too, yeah. So here’s the thing. Here’s the situation. There are for-profit companies out there that rely on human breast milk to produce products that are created and sold to hospitals with the intent of helping to nourish and prevent medical issues for premature and medically unwell babies.

This is a good thing, right? We’re not mad about that in general. Like we want breast milk to be used as medicine. Right. Love it. So this is a way of actually taking human milk and kind of changing it a little bit and breaking it down into, sometimes it comes as a like a paste almost, and it gets added to breast milk.

So say you have a premature baby and your baby needs more calories, but we don’t want to switch to formula. We want to use your breast milk, but we need to increase the calories. So instead of adding a cow’s milk, calorie increaser, this is a way of using a human milk product that increases the calorie or the protein or the whatever they’re missing, whatever they need.

So this is a way of taking human milk and manufacturing it and turning it into something useful. Okay. I like it. Now tell me why I’m mad about it. Okay. So these products such as the protein supplements, are life-saving and helpful. However, these companies do not have much competition in the free market, which allows them to exponentially mark up the cost of these lifesaving products, which we never like. No, we don’t like that.

And they are also not regulated by the¬†Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which is the nonprofit milk banking association that regulates milk donation. And that is what makes it financially feasible for hospitals to provide donor milk to babies in need. So that’s one arm. There’s many different things we’re going to explore here.

Also, we say that association, when we talk about their abbreviation, we say, Hmm bana. HmmBANA. In case I’m like, Oh,HMBANA, what the hell are you talking about? So, here’s where it gets weird. So if you really, you know, it sounds on the surface like, Oh, this is great. Like, why is Heather so pissed about this?

I’m listening. I’m waiting to feel the rage. Let me just drop it. Okay. So these for-profit companies rely on women to pump their breasts and send the milk. No milk, no product. So anytime money gets involved, shit gets weird. As always. So these companies like¬†Medolac, and¬†Prolacta¬†pay women per ounce for their breast milk.

They finally pay them. They did not always pay them. Oh yeah. And they did not disclose on the application for donation that they were a for-profit company. So now they do. Now they do. That’s fixed now, but okay. But because they’re not regulated, it’s always a legal battle. How long? Do you know how long that they were just like taking donations?

Yeah years. Guys, before you donate anything anywhere, you always have to make sure that that is not happening. Right. Don’t just assume that because they’re a company that accepts breast milk that they have everybody’s best interest in mind. They are a company. And if they are a for-profit company it’s for-profit and that’s where things get strange.

So for example, one issue. Let’s go through these issues. Ok, I’m listening. So ready. One issue is that preying on postpartum mothers who already have abysmal¬† parental leave or none. Who I’ve taken a financial hit after having their babies because they’re not working. Right? And they’re not working outside the home.

Maybe they’re paying $30,000 medical bill too? Who knows? Yeah. Thanks USA. Who knows what’s going on? So the thing is that now that we see breastfeeding as a “choice,” rather than a biological necessity for survival, it’s really hypocritical for governments to authorize these companies to sell breast milk without strengthening the rights of these women to breastfeed in the first place.

Or their own individual, right to sell or share their own milk. I see what you’re saying. So the choice for women to breastfeed has been expanded via the development of the breast pump that’s presented in the first instance as a tool for “liberating new mothers,” from the domestic realm to return to work while providing optimal nutrition for their infants.

You know, what would be really liberating for new parents? If they had paid parental leave mandated by the government. Right. So if you don’t know how we feel about that, go check out Episode 37, The History of Breast¬†Pumps. So if governments are continuing to neglect to recognize the economic value of lactating parents and the work that it is to provide human milk to a baby, and they refuse to acknowledge this work, then we are never going to provide some legitimacy to the occupation of working within the home.

And that works into this myth of like, feminism is working outside the home. That’s not what it is. And I feel like big corporations have loved that myth because they’re like, yeah, you want to be feminists? Get outside that home, get a babysitter. No, like feminism and, you know, mutual liberation is all about making the choices that feel good for you and having the freedom to do that.

Right. And that’s privilege. Yeah. That, I mean, that is, yeah. And you know, in the times that we’re living in where that gap is just widening and widening, they’re loving it. Because they can prey on poor women in general, nationally and internationally. Right. So, you know, let’s do some examples. Okay. I’m so ready for it.

Okay. Speaking my language. Oh my gosh. Now this one, I know you’re going to get really mad. So the company Medolac, which actually the CEO of used to work at Prolacta and then went and started her own thing. And it was like, Oh, competition in the market and like big legal battle, whatever. But anyways, they had this, this Medolac company in 2014 had a pilot program called Milk Money.

Which already makes me irritated. Yeah. You’re like, don’t like it already, first word out of your mouth. Yeah. So the aim of this program was to target “urban,” communities of Detroit to, again, ” help” the black women financially during their postpartum period, and also help to increase the breastfeeding rates in the African-American community.

Okay. If you serious, if you out there don’t know why this makes us so mad, we haven’t had a great opportunity to talk about this, but there are huge health disparities in breastfeeding rates among, that go along racial divides, right. And black people in particular have really low breastfeeding rates because of this massive history of exploitation and it’s awful and it’s heartbreaking and it’s something we all need to work really hard to help change.

And this is not the way to do that. This is not helpful for anybody. What the fuck? This is them seeing a vulnerable population that is poor and that’s black. And they’re like, Oh, you’re easy to exploit. Because they need the milk. Like I said, no milk, no product. So, instead of just being honest about it, they’re like putting this veil of “we’re helping them.”

You know, just anyways. So the claim also, let’s just put this out there. So the claim that these, I just imagine a bunch of white entrepreneurs sitting around a very fancy, corporate circular, or oval table. They’re like, how can we get these urban women to donate their milk voluntarily to us while helping them?

You know, Oh, I bet, isn’t it true that we could increase their breastfeeding rates in the black community, and this is not a claim that’s actually supported by any actual research. Right? So here’s the thing. Here was their big, brilliant plan. So Medolac was going to pay these black women a dollar an ounce, and then turn around and sell it for a 600% markup.

Of course they fucking were. For those that don’t understand how the market is supposed to work, like it works by holding the costs down and then you can sell it at a profit to those willing and able to pay. So not the kids that need it the most, like this is for profit. They’re going to sell to the private hospitals where most of the white people are, you know?

So the thing is they’re taking the milk from these black communities, underpaying, turning around, and overcharging in more privileged areas. So it’s not even like the black children in that community are benefiting from this program in any way, shape or form. So luckily the people of Detroit and Detroit health advocates teamed up with the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association¬†and put a stop to this.

And they even coined a hashtag #StopMedolac, which they used in congruence with the #BlackLivesMatter Nice. For a long time to get this fixed and they did fix it. Okay. So, you know, for those of you that don’t think that activism works, this is a prime example of change actually happening as a result of you speaking up for what you think is right.

So, you know, I just want you to know that Medolac did stop this program. They did not see it through. And my question is though, like, did they just go do this somewhere else with a slightly less like obvious like horrible ploy? Yeah. I can’t speak to that. Oh, but then again, it’s like, yes, this is a life-saving product that they’re creating.

But because there’s no competition, it’s actually being sold to hospitals for like $250 or $300 an ounce, whereas the human milk bank from the non-profits are like $5 an ounce. People complain all the time when I encourage them to donate to non-profit milk banks. They’re like, they sell it and it’s expensive.

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It’s five or $6 an ounce. And I’m like, yeah, that’s like literally the operating cost for them to make it safe to give to little babies. And they give it to all the little babies, not just the upper middle class, white babies. Like that’s actually, it’s so cheap. Yeah. A medical product. Yeah. So, you know, I had mentioned that this isn’t just a national problem.

This is an international problem. Hit me with it. So there was actually a company called NeoLacta, which is out of Australia that was collecting milk without remuneration from poor mothers at a bank or hospital in India and selling it publicly for $300 a liter in the US. I hate humans, Heather. In return for donating some of the processed milk to a hospital neonatal unit.

But here’s the catch. It never made it to the neonatal unit. Of course not. It was just this big, like scam. Yeah. It is a scam. Again, exploiting a population of vulnerable people. Yep. Here we go. Ready? So there’s another company. Yeah. Called Ambrosia Milk. That’s an awful name, I just can’t do it. Right. And they were paying Cambodian women for their breast milk and were paying them twice the local wage that they would make in any other job, which made it impossible for them to say no.

So, you know, that’s a really tough situation also because you’re really targeting their vulnerabilities to get more of the product that you need, but also what the living wage is in Cambodia, is nothing for what these companies are paying. What they’re selling it for, they’re making an incredible profit then if they’re selling it in another country.

Yeah. So this is exploitation also. So even though they’re paying them twice the local wage, that’s still exploitation. And here’s the thing too. Like this is unethical to purchase breast milk from again, a vulnerable population, especially if you’re not then making sure there’s some kind of control in place to ensure that these people’s babies are still getting enough milk.

Yeah. Yeah. Well the Cambodian government shut that shit down. Well, thank you for that. And they actually were quoted saying, “Even though we are still poor, we are not so poor that we have to sell human breast milk.” Yeah. I mean, honestly, it’s like, like the blood and plasma donation, places that pay you for it.

And it’s just like, but at least that could be anybody, not just vulnerable people. So you kind of brought this up a little bit, but I just wanted to acknowledge this because I read a lot of different articles and of course we’ll link them all in the show notes, but every single article that I read, including scientific ones, many of them mentioned the fear that mothers will deprive their own children of milk in order to sell it.

And although that may be true, they neglected in all of these articles to talk about their partners or other people trafficking them for this milk. Yeah. And this makes me mad because this is the good old, like Eve ate the apple way of thinking. Right? Oh, it’s placing the blame squarely on them, like you’re greedy, you want money. You’re going to deprive your baby. Right? No!

Or you’re stupid. You know, like whatever. It is, it is not ethical for them to even be in a situation where that is the choice. Right. Right. And on top of that, like you said, then that creates the potential for situations where there is no choice. Right. And I’m not saying they’re wrong to think that in these articles, I’m just saying, when you are reading things like this, I want everybody to start recognizing the bias that is written, the implicit bias against women making the choice for the whole family in a way that’s thinking about survival for the whole family, not just that baby.

There’s nothing wrong with that mentality, you know? But like you said, they should not be in a situation where they have to choose their baby’s life or the whole family’s wellbeing and it should not solely be their fault.

And like we mentioned, these kinds of programs are exploitive. They don’t help increase breastfeeding rates. You know, they might increase the amount of people who lactate and then pump and then sell their milk, but they’re not fixing a health disparity. Right. The other thing that I wanted to mention is that if we, and this is just something to think about because I’m sure some people listening have donated to some of these companies and your milk was used to create a life-saving product.

So like, don’t beat yourself up if you did this, but I just, we’re talking about these issues on a macro scale so we can understand. And the fact that the companies exist, isn’t the bad thing. It’s how they use their power over people and over these vulnerable populations and how they use that power to exploit them.

Right. So the other concern is if we pay mothers for their milk, will they stop donating to the non-profit milk banks that seek to serve all the communities? Right. Which is important because we should not be using lactation and breast milk as a way to further the gap between people. Yes. In general, it should be in my mind, something that brings us all together, not divide us even more.

So the good thing is, this is a relatively new problem for these for-profit milk corporations, because we finally have the technology to pick apart breast milk and alter it for products. So, you know, in this particular instance, this is a pretty new issue. So the laws are trying to catch up. The regulations are trying to catch up.

Governments are obviously trying to catch up as their people are being preyed upon. So it should reinforce the fact though, that breast milk is the best milk. If hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by these corporations to invest in these biotech companies who seek profit from breast milk. You know, so let’s just congratulate ourselves for a minute on having like gold, actual gold value in our breasts.

You know, it’s like these people want what we have because it’s so awesome. So instead of just being considered a gross body fluid, it’s now a precious commodity and that’s, you know, really good. I think that’s good marketing for people that lactate and getting the, you know, exposure that we need.

I mean, it would be great to build universal respect for that physiological process, the choice to engage in that, you know, and hopefully from that respect then comes better work accommodations. Better reimbursement for parents on leave, things like that. Instead of more exploitation. Yeah. Yeah. Like how messed up is it that somebody that wants to breastfeed doesn’t have the insurance coverage or the cash money to get the help they need, but they could get paid by a for-profit corporation to continue lactating?

Like it doesn’t add up. Like this whole equation is just not correct. Yeah. So follow your gut. You know, that’s what we always say. But if your gut is telling you to go for it and donate and to sell your milk to these for-profit companies, go for it. You know, if it makes you feel icky inside, then donate it to a nonprofit milk bank or keep it all for yourself.

You are not obligated to sell or donate any piece of your body ever. We hope so. And if you are, you need to let somebody know because you’re not in a good situation. So we just wanted you to be aware of what was going on and keep your eyes and ears out for breast milk exploitation. Let us know. This is practice.

Like we’re literally practicing how to recognize these atrocities because for so long it was normalized. So we’re just now kind of coming into our own where we’re like, wait a minute. That doesn’t feel right. And that doesn’t feel right. And that doesn’t feel right. I mean, this is happening with reproductive technology.

This is happening, I mean, surrogacy, everywhere. Vulnerable populations are getting hit. So understand that this is a big deal and that it takes people like us talking about it. You listening and spreading the word, sharing this episode with a friend and being like, Holy shit, can you believe this? You know, people need to know.

Anyways, well, thanks for coming on that ride with us today, friends. Sorry we don’t have a really good, positive way to end that because it all kind of sucks. Yeah. Yeah. But you go check out our interview with the milk bank. Yes, the Mid Atlantic Mother’s Milk Bank in Pittsburgh, who literally, my post pandemic dream right now for the podcast is that we like take a little recorder.

We go on a field trip and we tour the milk bank one day. It’s going to happen. I’m so excited. Yeah. I can’t wait. We’ll go live on Facebook and show you their mountains of freezers of milk and like their cool little pasteurization machine. I just like, it want to do that more than anything. Yeah. So that’s what we’ll do.

So stay tuned in the future because Maureen and I will be going on a field trip and, you know, consider donating if you can. And yeah, spread the word because it matters. And we care about you guys and we want to make sure nobody ever takes advantage of you. Yeah. Well, everybody let’s move on over to awards in the alcove. Let’s.

Just take a quick break to thank our sponsor, Liquid IV. Liquid IV makes your water work harder for you. It’s a great option for parents that are trying to stay hydrated during lactation, without having a ton of sugar in a sports drink. Their natural powdered drink mixes actually taste good too and contains five essential vitamins.

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All right. This week’s award goes to Karina-Lynne who overcame three bouts of mastitis, almost gave up after tongue tie revisions to, Oh, look at her, breastfeeding in Costco, in a baby wrap because she’s amazing and baby’s gotta eat. Yeah! Heck yeah, Karina. We’re going to give you the Moxie Mom Award. Yeah.

You got to have some serious moxie to make it through mastitis and tongue tie revisions and all of the trials and tribulations that come with that. And she says, love, love all the support this group has and I’m forever learning from you guys. Well, thanks Karina-Lynne. We love that. You’re part of it.

We’re so happy that you’re breastfeeding successfully and you feel good about it. Yeah, you’re winning, you moxie mom. All right, guys. Thanks for joining us today. And we’ll talk to you again next week. We’ll see you later. Thanks for listening to The Milk Minute. If you haven’t already please like, subscribe, and review our podcast wherever you listen.

If you’d like to support our podcast, you can find us on Patreon at Patreon.com/MilkMinutePodcast. To send us feedback, personal stories, or just to chat, you can send us an email at [email protected]

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