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Can Breast Milk Make Money?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: On the heels of the massive recall of infant formula made by Similac (due to its being contaminated with beetle parts!), new life is being breathed into the call for more human breast-milk banks in America.

woman breasfeeding
Here's where we stand, mamas: Abbott Laboratories, which makes the bestselling Similac, is having website problems today -- not to mention PR problems. The company's site has been inundated with frantic parents logging on to find out which product numbers are being recalled; it has become so overloaded that it keeps crashing. 

The fact that a reputable mass producer of artificial infant food is risking such a public-relations nightmare by staging a huge recall tells me that this problem must be really serious. Remember, this is capitalist America, where corporations weigh the costs of potential lawsuits and the loss of a few lives against reduced profits -- and usually decide that a few casualties won't cost them as much as a recall. So if thousands of pharmacies are clearing their shelves and parents are being warned to discontinue the use of Similac, this must be big.

So what's a working mother to do? Well, Bettina Forbes, of (a group that is working to eliminate society's "booby traps" that prevent so many women from breastfeeding), admits that infant formula is never going to disappear. "There are plenty of parents who make an informed decision to supplement formula with breast milk to accommodate a career," she says. "And there are breast-cancer survivors and adoptive parents for whom infant formula is vital." 

Still, Bettina wishes formula were safer, and that formula companies would come clean about what's really in their products. "I really wish that formula companies would change their advertising practices," she says. "There are a lot of moms who have bought into the misleading ads. This [formula recall] is a wake-up call for governments that they've got to enforce the WHO code." (WHO -- the World Health Organization -- has established a breastfeeding code that asks governments and advertisers to support breastfeeding and be honest about its benefits.) 

In the meantime, our nation is seeing a resurgence of breast-milk banks. After a decline in the 1980's (due to fears about possible HIV transmission), new regulations and testing practices have made donor breast milk safe again. Housed in hospitals, breast-milk banks stock milk that has been donated by nursing mothers and is made available mostly to premature infants. In light of the formula recall, could a dose of capitalism be injected into the business of breast milk? After all, it is a perfect human food, safer and more nutritious than formula. My hunch is that it would be coveted by bodybuilders and athletes ....

In some small ways, this is already beginning to happen. A company called Prolacta is using breast milk to make a human milk fortifier that's being sold to hospitals, pediatricians and mothers whose babies' health is compromised. And the mother-to-mother network is in full swing: is a new company that connects nursing mothers with parents who want to receive breast milk for their babies. I think it's only a matter of time before women with abundant milk supplies (whom I fondly call "dairy queens") start selling their liquid gold for profit. In fact, you can find a few of these enterprising mothers advertising on Craigslist already. 

Of course, if you really want to make a profit from breast milk, you have to get men involved -- and the Japanese have figured out one way to do that. At Bonyu Bar in Tokyo, lactating bartenders allow patrons to sidle up to the bar and buy a glass of breast milk. If they pay a premium, they can slurp it down right from the source! I'm sure that this trendy bar idea will soon come to New York. If it does, then all I have to say is, "Move over, guys, and let the babies have the milk!"

next: Pregnancy: To Drink or Not To Drink?
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