Sale of Cambodian breast milk to mothers in US criticised by UN

UN agency says trade puts babies of poor and vulnerable at risk of malnutrition as Cambodia moves to block further exports

A man on a motorbike past the offices of Ambrosia Labs in Phnom Penh.
A man on a motorbike rides past the offices of Ambrosia Labs in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty

The UN children’s fund has strongly criticised the sale by a commercial company of breast milk donated by Cambodian mothers to women in the US, warning it could lead to the babies of poor and vulnerable women becoming malnourished.

Unicef condemned the trade by Utah-based company Ambrosia Labs as the Cambodian government intervened. Cambodia’s customs department said the finance minister, Aun Porn Moniroth, had signed a letter blocking further exports, according to the Associated Press in Phnom Penh. Talks will be held to decide whether the business should be allowed to resume.

Breast milk is in great demand by women who cannot feed their own babies in the US. However, Unicef’s view is that their needs cannot be met at the expense of babies in the developing world.

“Breast milk banks should never be operated by exploiting vulnerable and poor women for profit and commercial purposes,” said Iman Morooka, of Unicef in Cambodia.

“Breast milk could be considered as human tissue, the same as blood, and as such its commercialisation should be banned. Malnutrition remains a threat to children’s wellbeing in Cambodia, and proper breastfeeding is one of the key factors contributing to a child’s good health and nutrition.”

Even after six months, she said, Unicef advises that women should continue to breastfeed. “It is recommended that all efforts are made to appropriately breastfeed children until the age of two years old, at least five times per day.”

There is a substantial online trade in breast milk in the US, where women advertise their expressed milk for sale. Many claim to eat only healthy food and be free from disease.

Ambrosia, however, claims to offer a safer service, by importing breast milk on a large scale from women in Cambodia. The women are given blood tests to ensure they are healthy and the milk is shipped frozen and then sterilised once in the US.

Ambrosia was founded by two men, one of whom, Bronzson Woods, worked as a Mormon missionary in Cambodia. His co-founder, Ryan Newell, said the business benefited poor Cambodians as well as Americans and that they were applying for a licence.

The women they employ cannot donate their milk until they have exclusively breastfed their own children for six months, as the World Health Organization recommends, he said.

“We’re not taking away from those children,” said Newell, from the company’s offices in Orem, Utah, south of Salt Lake City. “We’re just taking the extra that those mothers would be losing at that point if they start weaning their children.”

Ambrosia Labs employs about 30 women in slum areas to donate milk. Without that income, they would have to go back to working in clothing factories or end up on the streets, said Newell.

“We’ve been able to offer these women work where they are earning two to three times what they would be making elsewhere. They’re able to stay home with their kids more because they are not working the insane hours.”

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