FDA discourages women from sharing breast milk (though freeze-dried, highly processed cow’s milk is fine)

Yesterday I was having a conversation at dinner with a lady and the subject of milk-drinking came up. While women have generally been utterly persuaded that milk (and other dairy products) are somehow essential to bone health. Paleontological evidence suggests that we had no bone problems to speak of prior to the introduction of dairy products, which should perhaps cause us to question the ‘need’ for this foodstuff. But never mind that: the evidence shows that calcium derived from dairy products actually has a quite limited role in the formation of healthy bone in women (and children for that matter). See here and here for more on this.

I pointed out that the idea of drinking the milk of another species of animal may be culturally acceptable to us, but that this practice perhaps goes against our own intuitive sense of what is healthy and appropriate and what is not. I asked my dinner companion to imagine her response to me offering her some breast milk I had, say, taken from a dog. She wasn’t too keen. I countered that the milk was ‘safe’, because I’d pasteurised it. She was still not keen. And yet very few of us are similarly repulsed by the idea of drinking cow’s milk.

I said that I thought it was somewhat ironic that we generally have no issue with the concept of drinking cow’s milk, most individuals would feel uneasy about the concept of drinking human breast milk. Some actually feel more comfortable with the idea of feeding babies highly-processed formula feeds based on cow’s milk. I suggest that somewhere along the line many of us have managed to become detached from our intuitive sense of what is best for us and our children.

I wouldn’t normally have dwelled on this conversation at all if I had not today come across this story. It concerns a new trend in the women to source breast milk for their babies on-line.  I read that an organisation calling itself ‘Eats for Feets’ is helping connect women who want to donate breast milk with those who need it. Quite honestly now, reading about this service warmed my heart. The idea of women donating their nutrient-rich, appropriate milk to other women in need seems to me to be a beautiful thing. But not all agree.

Because as you’ll see from this story, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US has issued a statement warning women not to source breast milk from the internet. It warns of risk of disease or contamination from bacteria, drugs or chemicals.

Apparently an official statement is due next Thursday, and until then we can only speculate on the evidence on which the FDAs position is based. However, something tells me that there will be no hard evidence for any significant risk from the practice of the sharing of breast milk, and that this will be another example of a government agency publishing guidelines that not only are not useful, but may well hinder health.

16 Responses to FDA discourages women from sharing breast milk (though freeze-dried, highly processed cow’s milk is fine)

  1. Eadie's Mum 3 December 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    This is really fascinating and I totally agree about the highly-processed infant formula. But, what should a mother feed her four month old baby if she’s unable to breastfeed any longer and can’t get hold of enough banked breastmilk? I want to ensure she’s getting everything she needs nutritionally.

  2. Valerie H 3 December 2010 at 7:08 pm #

    There is no doubt that the FDA will warn against or ban anything not coming from a giant food corporation. They are targeting small farmers and artisan cheese producers and raiding them with guns drawn.
    Although it sounds weird when you say we drink milk from a different species, it might be possible that dairy herding was practiced before agriculture. That would mean that humans have been consuming dairy for > 10,000 years. I read this article with great interest, as it documents when and where the mutation for lactose tolerance was developed in northern Europe: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,723310,00.html

    People from northern Europe are particularly well adapted to dairy if this gene mutation is present.

  3. Judith Fage 3 December 2010 at 10:46 pm #

    How interesting – some 34 years ago a group of nursing mothers donated breastmilk for premature babies in the Whittington hospital though a regular weekly ‘milk run’ organised through the National Childbirth Trust, with a rota for collecting the week’s bottles and taking them to the Whittington. I believe the scheme was later discontinued (possibly for the reasons described) but I would be very interested to know if there has been any hard research into the risks of such a scheme. Of course the environment has changed, with some nasty bugs about, but it was a valuable service for babies who would have had difficulty digesting formula milks.

  4. Jason Regards 4 December 2010 at 8:34 pm #

    The breast milk is a great complement for newborns. It has been found to have the vitamins suitable for babies up to six months of age. It is a good basis for when they have greater age not suffering from bone pain, because they are descalcifican if there is no basis from small. That is why it is recommended a good glass of milk a day.

    Jason Regards.

  5. Chris 6 December 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Some years ago following on from the wave of optimism that arose from advances in genetic science and the conclusion of the human genome project there was a BBC TV documentary on genetics. I think it was a ‘Horizon’ production.

    Where the expectation was once that a single gene may express a single outcome the program introduced the paradox that two very different illnesses could be traced to a single mutant or defective gene. It also introduced in terms a person of lay interest could follow the concept of the possibility that genes could be present in either of two states, either active or inactive. Moreover it was presented that environmental issues such as famine could result in gene switching during a persons lifetime. There was mention of a Swedish village that had kept uncommonly good records of the harvest and, if my memory serves me well, of mortality.

    The program also had an excellent sequence upon the traceable progress of genetic adaptation to become tolerant to lactose, spreading if I recall, from the east to western Europe. Observable evolution at work, so to speak. I cannot recall if the adaptation was cited as being the result of ‘switching’. The program was fascinating then and that was before I recently became interested in the evolution of the human diet and our co-evolution with it. Valeries’ link is interesting. I wish I could readily land upon more discussion of the themes the program covered.

    It is interesting how peoples perceptions are coloured. That exchanging breast milk with those who have need is somehow ‘improper’, or that the solution to not being apply to supply enough of ones own breast-milk must be to source formula milk from the world of big business. Furthermore the stance of the regulator is absurd to discourage fair-minded people from taking sound initiatives of their own.

    We live in an age of increasing absurdity that is not going to improve before it has gotten worse. It’s the human outlook that needs to evolve. John Steinbecks novel ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ moved me to tears many times and not least for the moving account of a mother wet-nursing a pitiful and emaciated elder during the families forced migration to California. The account challenges a deep seated human taboo. Steinbeck intended a lesson somewhere.

  6. Julie Craker 6 December 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    Eadie’s mum might check out the Weston A Price website. A wonderful and well respected resource for nutritional information. The work of Dr. Weston is very worthy of reading. His observations of the correlation between the diet and physical development and health of indigenous people around the world, are compelling evidence to feed our children and pregnant mums a healthy diet. Just the way Dr. Briffa is telling us!

  7. KD 10 December 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    The organization is “Eats on Feets” (not “Eats with Feets”) and there is also a warning from Canada Health and Safety about sharing breastmilk. The warning, as I understand it, stems from the possibility of transmitting diseases like HIV or herpes, or from “improper handling” … absurd concerns, I think, in the face of listeria outbreaks, and formula contamination.

    While there are valid reasons to be aware and informed about the breastmilk source, I think that the fact that the safety of sharing breastmilk is even being questioned points to a trend of people and governments moving away from and restricting informed choice. On a recent CBC radio interview with Eats on Feets’ Emma Kwasnica, a pediatrician (whose name I don’t recall) actually insisted that shared breastmilk is LESS safe than formula. I suppose it all comes down to what you consider “safe”.

    The FDA and Canadian Health warnings, to me, imply that women are not able to evaluate the risks to their babies and make an informed choices. Quite frankly, should I have not been able to breastfeed, I would have trusted a woman I know personally to supply me with extra milk over corporate formula, or even milk from a federal breastmilk bank (treated, pasteurized, packaged, stored) which I would see as vulnerable to contamination.

    In general, I think it benefits corporations that people feel afraid to make decisions and assess the risks on their own. So much more profitable when the population is happy to be told “here, this is certified safe” rather than encourage them to inform themselves and come to their own conclusions.

    Sorry for the rant, but it is a subject I feel strongly about. I thoroughly encourage women to take their babies’ health into their own hands, inform themselves of the risks and benefits of their options, make informed choices for themselves, and where the best option doesn’t exist, create a way to make it happen.


  8. Maureen Minchin 10 December 2010 at 9:24 pm #

    Well said Dr Briffa. And good on those sensible mothers sharing a resource essential to normal child development. Women’s milk has always been used as medicine as well as food. It presents babies not only with doses of everything in the family’s environment, but multiple ingredients needed to deal effectively with, and develop tolerance or destroy them as needed. Few people realise yet just how much harm has been done by interfering with the epigenetic mechanisms designed to shape a baby’s adaptation to its postnatal environment.
    But mothers need to remember that babies need breastmilk, then breastmilk+food+water after around 6 months, then food + water some months/years later. Babies don’t need white liquids in bottles. Milk is just one of many available foods, but the one most likely to cause some problems, while patent formula ‘milks’ with hexane-extracted GM fungal and algal oils and allergenic corn are totally disgusting to my taste buds (try them).. Look for the information about appropriate complementary feeding on the WHO Geneva website, and use WHO’s information about growth monitoring. 6 months is not a sacred time: if a mother hasn’t enough milk for a 5 month old, and no donor breastmilk is easily accessible, she can widen the child’s diet: not with a Pritikin diet of starches and vegies, so that baby is filled up but lacks fats and protein, but with a suitable multi-mix like those WHO describes.By 4-6 months babies can cope with such things, though breastmilk alone is better provided there’s enough of it. (There will be if you allow baby to feed freely and effectively.) But however little there is, it’s worth giving. Nothing can provide the boost of immune factors that breastmilk does: regression milk is more like colostrum in its high concentration of the same daily dose of important protective and developmental factors.

  9. Misty 11 December 2010 at 1:05 am #

    Yet they encourage highly rancid vegetable oils and toxic soy in our baby formulas. For those who can’t find a breast milk bank, http://www.westonaprice.org has some recommendations on feeding the infant who cannot breast feed. At 4 months, it is wise to start your baby on egg yolk. Choline is the most important component of a growing brain.

  10. John Walker 12 December 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    Come to think of it, we are the only species of mammal that sets out to drink milk deliberately, after we are weaned.

    I know cats and dogs will drink it if they are given it. But they don’t go looking for it.

    Had we never farmed dairy cattle then we would never have bothered about milk.
    I know some mothers can’t breast feed their child. But our ancestors had a way around that; called ‘wet-nursing’.

    Or have I missed something?


  11. Chris 15 December 2010 at 7:32 am #

    KD,your comments strike me as objective and not a rant at all. Wasn’t the melamine contamination scare reported recently?

    I would hedge a guess that the practice of wet-nursing the child of another is a fairly strong and primal strategy in the pre-history of the human species that persisted until quite recent times when;
    a) economic advancement eroded a close community sense of mutuality, and
    b) technological advancements made extension of the ‘shelf-life’ of cows milk possible by drying.

    And you’re correct to, I think, to intimate the risks, that accompany our impersonal modern world with its extended and unfamiliar social horizons, of the perceived risk of disease transmission. But are not the diseases you mention ins some way diseases of industrialisation and squalor?

    If close social networks and a strong sense of mutuality persisted, with the cancerous malaise of urbanisation and its inherent inequalities and injustices less prevalent, appropriate safeguards in place, exchanging breast milk makes strong social sense.

  12. Kris Pearson 25 December 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    Come to think of it, we are the only species of mammal that sets out to drink milk deliberately, after we are weaned. I know cats and dogs will drink it if they are given it. But they don’t go looking for it. Had we never farmed dairy cattle then we would never have bothered about milk. I know some mothers can’t breast feed their child. But our ancestors had a way around that; called ‘wet-nursing’. Or have I missed something? JW

  13. Maureen Minchin 12 March 2011 at 2:45 am #

    Have just been to a conference where the live cells in breastmilk were discussed by a researcher from the Hartmann group in WA, one of the world’s most important research groups. Guess what: lots of different cell types, including stem cells proved to be multi-potent and quite likely to be pluripotent, ie capable of transforming into any body cell. They are working on proving that like immune cells known to do so, these cells can migrate from the intestine to every part of the body. This would provide an explanation for different gene expression and much lower levels of chromosomal damage in breastfed children, as well as the better outcomes in damaged babies who are breastfed rather than artificially fed. Breastmilk for nutrition, growth, and repair. This source of stem cells involves no ethical problems, and means that cord blood banking (depriving babies of blood and increasing iron deficiency risks) is not needed. How many vested interests will unite to reject this, I wonder?

  14. Anja S 10 July 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Hurray for individuals to report, analyse and comment on such matters. I fully agree with what Dr Briffa says. I’m a mother of a 2 year old and currently undergoing education within Nutrition. Before embarking on my studies I have never even thought of the fact that drinking milk (wherever as formula or from cows) may not be the best option for bone health or at least that there are other, perhaps healthier options of supporting little one’s calcium intake. The lack of information, stuck traditions and a lot of sneering when I try to explain that foliage is after all where cows retrieve calcium from adds to frustration. Mothers have been continuously beaten with irrelevant and mostly misleading advise in settings where midwife/doctor knows best, leaving mothers unsure about there own instincts which, in my own opinion, mostly are the right ones. A shame that the more influential and big corporations don’t even shriek back from trying influence the feeding and well-being of our future generations!


  15. Ophelie 26 August 2012 at 10:32 pm #

    In France, mothers can give their breast milk to other premature babies through what we call a “lactarium”, a structure within a hospital. The lactarium usually provides advice on how to use a breast pump and how to store the milk (by freezing it). Then it collects it, analizes it for diseases and germs, and pasteurizes it. Though it’s a complex process, breast milk, even frozen and pasteurized, is considered the best food for babies, especially premature ones.
    It’s also a bit of a paradox that this exists in France, knowing that breast feeding isn’t wildly popular there (though it’s getting better) and that a lot of young mothers are quite misinformed about it.


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