Tuesday, April 05, 2016

California bill aims to stop profiteers from selling human milk out of state

Tomorrow at 1 pm PDT in Sacramento there is a public hearing on Senate Bill 1316, to amend laws governing the operation of human milk banks in California. The aim is keep the supply of donor human milk from being controlled by for-profit interests.

Milk purchased in California is sold at a profit, out-of-state. 
The bill addresses deep concerns about some of California's most vulnerable residents, premature babies in Neonatal Intensive Care Units, who may be going without life-saving donor milk.

Why? Several for-profit companies that market competing products made from human milk are in a battle to secure supply (See Human Milk News: Milk mongers sell mix of fear and doubt)  They're fighting over mothers who have extra milk to give, offering incentives and cash, along with promises that the milk will save the lives of tiny babies. They have stolen the language of non-profit donor milk banks - they call the people they buy milk from "donors" and encourage them to contribute "life-saving donations." One has even styled itself as a "public benefit" corporation operating a milk "cooperative."

Sick babies in NICUs need human milk, and if their own mothers can't make enough, donor human milk fills the gap. Without human milk the risk of diseases like necrotizing enterocolitis or sepsis is much higher, leading to serious illness and even death. Usually women with extra milk donate it, but some women are drawn to the incentives offered by the for-profits, and reassured by their promise that it will still be used to save babies. This leaves fewer women giving their milk to California's non-profit milk bank.

What do the companies actually do with this milk? Non-profits gently pasteurize the milk, leaving many nutrients and immune properties intact, and provide it at cost directly to NICUs for babies in need. California-based Prolacta pays $1.00/ounce, and for every 10 ounces purchased, it produces a single ounce of a specialized product that sells for $180/oz. The product is meant to be added to human milk as a special fortifier for very low birth weight babies, but what if there isn't enough human milk to begin with? Non-profit milk banks argue milk needs to go directly to babies first, and any milk left over can then be used for specialized products. Another company, Medolac, sterilizes the human milk it purchases, removing the life-saving properties so valued for babies in the NICU, and offers it for sale to the general public. Medolac also sucks components out of human milk using a "commercial scale proprietary purified bulk process" to be sold to scientists for research. Yet another company is harvesting human milk and selling it to bodybuilders.

Some in California have had enough of unfettered commerce taking milk from babies and selling it for profit, especially when it's going out of state. Bill SB 1316 would require for-profits to stop co-opting the language of non-profits - they wouldn't be allowed to use the term "donor" or "community benefit" when describing their transactions. They would be required to explain exactly how they are going to use the milk they purchase - no more blanket "saving babies" rhetoric. They would also be restricted from purchasing milk from mothers with newborns - families will have to wait until their own babies are six months of age or older and able to start complementary foods, before they can sell extra milk. This last measure is designed to address the concern, which we heard about last year in Detroit, that low-income families may be encouraged to sell milk for extra income while providing their own children with free or subsidized infant formula through WIC. This last measure will also help preserve the supply of donor milk for babies in need, as when the financial incentive is removed, only families with truly more milk than their own baby need will be likely to donate it.

Update: We've removed the Call to Action for now, but stay tuned for new info on how you can help move this forward!

Update 2:  Here are the

Update 3: Link to the televised proceedings (begins at about 45 minutes.)

Read more:
Breast Milk Becomes a Commodity, With Mothers Caught Up in Debate - New York Times, March 2015
What Happens When Breast Milk Goes Big-Business? - NYMag, March 2015