Germany′s new online breast milk marketplace | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.08.2014
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Germany's new online breast milk marketplace

Books, shoes and…mother's milk? Breast milk is now available online in Germany. It could be a real option for mothers who are unable to nurse. But critics say it could be dangerous for your baby.

"I had too much, and just poured the extra down the drain," says Tanja Müller. Then she had an idea: why not bring mothers together to share their breast milk?

Müller founded Germany's first mother's milk online marketplace in January.

And it has plenty of critics.

Online milk market

Internet communities for buying and selling mother's milk have existed in the United States for a decade. At onlythebreast.com, mothers selling milk advertise themselves as "healthy," "non-smoker," or "all-organic diet."

Buyers can also post for free - in the "Men buying breast milk" category, for instance, a 49-year-old writes, "Please reply to this ad if you have fresh warm milk for sale right out of the breast." His ad does not specify whether he wants the milk for a baby.

Mother's milk can be a precious resource for women who for whatever reason are unable to nurse. And it's a lucrative market - in the US, one fluid ounce goes for between $1 and $2 (2.50 to 5 euros for 100 milliliters).

Müller says she tries to make it clear and easy for mothers: "There are five steps listed that every mother can read."

The first is to search for a local donor - it's important to become familiar with the woman and her environment, Müller says.

Mothers negotiate the conditions and prices for the milk themselves. Payment is made by cash in advance, or via Paypal.

The milk is handed over personally, or sent via express mail with dry ice to keep it cool.

But can it really be that easy?

Associations emphasize dangers

Donated breast milk is shown here in an industrial refrigerator at the Mother's Milk Bank in San Jose, California (AP Photo/Randi Lynn Beach)

The chain of refrigeration should not be broken

The National Breastfeeding Committee under Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has harsh criticism for the sale of mother's milk over the Internet.

The Nutrition Commission of the German Society of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has also taken a position on the issue, stating that unregulated use of mother's milk to feed infants can have high risks.

These risks include transmission of bacteria, germs or viruses from the donor to the infant. These could include serious contagious diseases, such HIV, hepatitis and syphilis.

Mother's milk banks, which are directly connected to clinics, are a different story, says Michael Radke, head doctor at the Ernst von Bergmann Clinic in Potsdam. Donor mothers and their milk are extensively tested there.

"We freeze the milk after donation, and when the last milk has been donated, the woman does another blood test to assure that no infections have come up during the donation period," says Radke. The milk itself also undergoes bacteriological examination.

Lifesaving liquid

There's no doubt that mother's milk constitutes the best nutrition for an infant: scientists, doctors and mothers all agree on the benefits, which include a stronger immune system, and some suggest even higher intelligence.

Breast milk contains 300 different substances, explains Corinna Gebauer, director of Leipzig's mother's milk bank: "Live antibodies, proteins for digestive immune defense, digestive enzymes." Such substances aren't present in industrial formulas.

Mother's milk is critical for premature babies, who have a special need for such substances. But mothers of premature babies often find that their bodies will not produce any milk.

Even the World Health Organization says that for preemies, nutrition with pasteurized donor milk is an "appropriate alternative" if the mother cannot breastfeed.

Premature baby in clinic

An extremely premature baby can be so small as to fit in the palm of an adult hand

Lack of milk banks

Germany has 13 mother's milk banks, most in the former East Germany as a legacy of socialist times when every city with more than 20,000 residents was required to have one.

The European Milk Bank Association (EMBA) was founded in 2010 to help link the depots.

Other countries, such as China, India and Cameroon, also have mother's milk banks to help premature or other infants in need of breast milk.

In Germany, there's no specific law governing such banks.

"We're working under a very dubious legal framework from 1943," Radke says. But the agreement is that mother's milk banks work under the same standards as blood banks, to ensure safety standards.

Particular emphasis should be placed on keeping the milk cool, Gebauer says.

"If storage doesn't stay appropriately cool, bacteria can quickly multiply to the point where it may cause infection for the receiving child," she says.

Market has spoken

Woman breastfeeding her daughter (Photo: Julien Behal)

Breastfeeding is also known to strengthen the bond between mother and child

The EMBA tends to be against online milk markets, says Gebauer, because of the potential for spreading germs.

Müller says she assumes mothers will take it upon themselves to be responsible, and emphasized how her site takes pains to thoroughly inform mothers about risks.

"I can't imagine that mothers who buy milk wouldn't get it tested," says Müller. But she also works with a laboratory, which tests for germs, and to see whether the milk has been diluted with water or formula.

The 38-year-old, who turned to donor milk for her youngest child, found a donor mother in her region. She picked up the milk personally, transported it in an icebox with cold packs, and then put it in her refrigerator immediately. She sent samples to the lab for testing before feeding it to her baby.

On the American onlythebreast.com marketplace, a notice in red type warns that unpasteurized milk may have bacteria, and advises people to pasteurize before consumption, even providing step-by-step instructions for this. Pastuerizing milk kills potentially harmful germs, although it also kills some enzymes as well.

But Radke counters: "These women are not aware of all the risks."

Gebauer also has her doubts: "There are so many risks - and so much potential for manipulation. I can only recommend against it."

But demand has spoken, and supply has answered. Until more milk banks are established to provide affordable mother's milk for infants who need it, the online markets will fill the gap.

There is even room for strange products to find a niche: London store The Icecreamists offered breast milk ice cream, or "Baby Gaga," to the public earlier this year. The idea even seems to be catching on - in Iceland, the experimental product "Bubis" will be offered on Ice Cream Day in August.

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