Reports of a recent study done on breast milk obtained over the internet claim that the breast milk tested from these sources was contaminated with high levels of disease-causing bacteria.
The study was conducted by a research team from the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. See the official report from Nationwide Children's Hospital here.
“But what the researchers found was worrisome: more colonies of Gram-negative bacteria including coliform, staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria in the milk purchased online, and, in about 20 percent of samples, cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies. The contamination was associated with poor milk collection, storage or shipping practices, the analysis showed.” – NBC News
While the media makes wild claims and reports about the danger of donated breast milk, what they don't tell you is that the breast milk in the study was not donated, and I find myself with many questions as to the nature of this study and to the motivations of those reporting it.
Breakdown of the Contaminated Breast Milk Study
Very few news reports or online articles that I found actually cite the original study, including the “report” by Nationwide Children's hospital. But I was finally able to dig up the original study here, even though all you can read online is the abstract.
The details of the study available to the general public are fuzzy, at best, but here is what I do know:
The Milk Was Purchased – Not Donated
Many major media outlets have reported that this is a study on the contamination of “donated” breast milk, yet the original report made by Nationwide Children's Hospital states that the study was done on breast milk purchased (for sale) online and compared it to pasteurized breast milk from major milk banks.
Researchers analyzed 101 samples bought online and compared the findings to 20 samples obtained from a milk bank. – Nationwide Children's Hospital
This is hardly a fair representation of the wide range of outlets in which donated breast milk is attained by recipients. They also seem to ignore that the monetary gain of the seller could be a key factor in the low quality of the breast milk obtained.
The Media Reports are Misrepresented or Unclear
Only 17% of purchased breast milk samples contained especially high levels of disease-causing bacteria. The report cites poor storage and distribution practices, but does not give clear information as to whether these practices correlated with the higher bacteria counts.
The study also does not compare the results to a control group of properly stored (unpasteurized) breast milk from donors or fresh breast milk from mothers. A control group like this could put aside questions as to what kind of bacteria levels are normal in human breast milk, and what storage practices are the most effective.
What the report also does not tell you is that bacteria such as staphylococcus can be found easily on the skin of a healthy individual, and does not automatically mean that a person will get sick.
At best, this study seemed biased as the favored “outcome” is that donated breast milk only be obtained from funded milk banks and should be pasteurized.
Nationwide Children's Hospital admits:
“Our research results may not apply to situations where milk is shared among friends or relatives or donated rather than sold—the potential risks of those situations are less well understood”
How to Make Sure Donated Breast Milk is Not Contaminated
The best way to ensure that your donated breast milk is safe is to know the source well. Mothers should take great care in getting to know the donor and asking about medications, lifestyle habits, and health concerns. They should also agree on hygiene, storage, and transfer or shipping practices that focus on safety and “best practices“.
The Resource for Informed Breastmilk Sharing is one of the leading online resources for information concerning donated breastmilk, including information for donors and recipients. They provide information about safe storage and transfer methods, health concerns, and even information on donor testing.
If you still have concerns about harmful bacteria in donated breast milk, there are two pasteurization methods that can be done at home: Two Kinds of Pasteurization. Just beware: pasteurization of breast milk will kill the harmful bacteria but it will also kill the beneficial bacteria that make it easily-digestible to infants.
Additional Resources for Safe Donor Milk Practices:
- Use of Fresh Donor Human Milk Protocol from the California Perinatal Quality Care Collaborative’s Nutritional Support of the Very Low Birth Weight Infant Quality Improvement Toolkit
- Donor milk FAQ from the International Breast Milk Project
- Breatmilk Donation FAQ from Milk Share
Do you think donated breast milk is generally safe?
Creative commons image by Tzuhsun Hsu