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Cambodia bans human breast milk exports

March 28, 2017

Cambodians are no longer allowed to sell or export human breast milk, after a US firm attracted controversy. Women are paid about US$7 a day to pump breast milk for export to the US.

Woman pumping breast milk
Image: picture-alliance/Godong

Cambodia's cabinet ordered the health ministry on Tuesday to "take actions to immediately prevent the purchasing and exporting of breast milk from mothers from Cambodia," according to a ministry letter.

"Although Cambodia is poor and (life is) difficult, it is not at the level that it will sell breast milk from mothers."

The order came after it temporarily halted last week the US-based Ambrosia Labs from operating in the country on health and organ trafficking grounds.

It paid Cambodian women in capital Phnom Penh to pump breast milk, which it then shipped to the US to be pasteurized and sold for US$20 per 5 oz (18 euros for 147 ml).

A "Vice Magazine" report found about 50 women were employed by the company and were paid about US$7 a day.

The company's customers were American mothers who could not produce enough of their own breast milk or who wanted to supplement their babies' diets. It was started by a former Mormon missionary two years ago.

Unorthodox business

The company's founder told podcast "Reply All" in March 2016 he knew the business was unorthodox but said it was a good chance to earn money for Cambodians.

"We don't want to hurt them, we don't want to hurt their children. We want to create an opportunity for them to create something of value. And get paid for it," he said.

"We feel that just because someone is less wealthy than an American doesn't mean they can't make good choices for their families."

Loss of income

After the suspension last week, women employed by the business rued the loss of income.

"I am poor, and selling breast milk helped me a lot," Chea Sam, a 30-year-old mother told the AFP news agency. "We all cried when the company informed us about the suspension. We want it to be in business."

UN: breast milk trade 'exploitative'

UNICEF, the United Nations branch that protects children, welcomed the ban, saying the trade was exploitative and that excess breast milk should remain in Cambodia, where many babies lack proper nutrition.

"In Cambodia exclusive breastfeeding for newborns for their first six months declined from 75 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2014," Debora Comini, UNICEF's Cambodia Representative said in a statement.

Ros Sopheap, the director of local women's rights group Gender and Development for Cambodia, applauded the government's decision to bar the trade. 

"Even if women agree to do it voluntarily, they often have no other choices and face economic pressure," she told AFP.

aw/kl (AFP, AP, Reuters)