Science & Technology

Online breast milk industry opens up options for mothers in need

Like many mothers, Jennifer Rieder keeps busy. Her time is divided among taking care of her two infant daughters, maintaining a successful relationship and declining men who request to see photographs of her breasts online.

Rieder, one of hundreds of thousands of active users on OnlyTheBreast.com, sells her breast milk to interested clients. OnlyTheBreast has earned its reputation as the kingpin of the for-profit human breast milk industry.

Most of Rieder’s customers are women who need the milk to feed their infants, she says. Some, however, are men who fetishize breast milk and drink it for alternative purposes, such as for health or for its taste.

Sites like OnlyTheBreast, where customers can make monetary transactions in exchange for a single sample of breast milk, function like eBay.com. Individuals interested in buying or selling breast milk sign up for an account and specify what they want.

OnlyTheBreast and similar sites are largely unregulated, which means that transactions do not guarantee buyers’ security.

The site operates according to caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware.” Customers have no way to ensure that the milk they purchase comes from a human or that their purchase is even safe for
consumption.

The lack of regulation, however, only encourages Rieder. As a lactating mother in her late 20s who produces more breast milk than her child can consume, she appreciates the lack of federal interference.

Government organizations, such as regulated nonprofit milk banks, lead to long waiting lists, Rieder says. She prefers online venues because she can choose the recipient of the milk and bypass waiting lists while still setting her
own price.

OnlyTheBreast operates internationally, but Rieder relies on the site to schedule meetings with clients in and around her hometown of Woodbury, Texas.

The company provides no screening of the people who want to purchase breast milk. While Rieder mostly encounters young mothers on the site who have difficulty lactating, she is familiar with other people who request breast milk, such as men who claim that they crave it for its taste or intend to use it to supplement their
health regimen.

However, present information reveals few breast milk benefits for adults. After researching lactation for over two decades, Professor Bruce German, a lactation biologist and chemist at the University of California, Davis, learned that adults do not process breast milk in the same way that infants do.

German works at the Foods for Health Institute, an initiative at his campus to understand what people should be eating in the 21st century. Early in his career, German researched lactation and its relationship to nourishment.   He chemically split apart human breast milk enzymes to study their composition and found that breast milk has a high concentration of lactose. Infants can readily digest lactose because of a specific enzyme they possess. German and his team, however, determined that adults cannot fully digest human breast milk because after infancy this enzyme develops an
alternate function.

Therefore, German said, human breast milk gives no benefits when consumed by adults. Diet and agriculture are “basically not taught in school. If people learn more about our diet, they would think it’s silly to consume breast milk. I think history will look back on this particular window of social knowledge and scholars will ask what we were thinking,” he explained.

Milk banks under the umbrella of various nonprofit organizations also provide breast milk to interested customers. These organizations store breast milk from donors who produce an excess of it. Specialists screen donors to ensure that their breast milk samples are healthy and recipients are then selected in the order that they appear on the waiting list.

Some organizations like Eats On Feets—a nonprofit network that facilitates the arrangement of milk-sharing—do not rely on a waiting list or any kind of hierarchy to distribute healthy milk. The organization simply connects donors and recipients over the internet, according to Maria Armstrong, co-founder of Eats On Feets. Armstrong and her coworkers provide safety information, prohibit monetary transactions and rely on social media to create profiles for donors and babies in need.

Like many nonprofit milk banks, Eats On Feets exclusively serves babies in need of nourishment. Occasionally, the organization receives requests from other customers but adults are “not allowed [to be served] and quickly thwarted,” Armstrong said.

Rieder too only sells her milk to mothers in need, but she still receives the occasional request for nude photographs or sample tastes from men who use OnlyTheBreast. For women desperately in need, she may choose to lower the price per sample.

March 20, 2017

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