Milk sharing, banking, and donation have been in the news lately. Some people advocate sharing; some advocate milk banking via donation. What I’m sure no one wants is for moms to be swindled out of their breast milk, but that’s exactly what’s happening – and on a widespread, national basis.
That’s right: moms are being swindled out of their milk donations so that Prolacta Bioscience can PROFIT from them.
What’s worse, is that they’re doing it under the guise of altruism in the name of vulnerable, sick babies. It’s a complex issue, one that seems to spiral into a rabbit hole with every new fact that’s uncovered.
Prolacta Bioscience: Cornering the Market
When a Google search of the terms “breast milk donation” is performed, Prolacta is the dominant result both in ads and the top six organic links.
That’s three sponsored ad links that all trace back to Prolacta. Three of the top six organic (non-paid) search results also trace back to Prolacta. And of the nine top links (sponsored and organic, combined), SIX yield milk donations for Prolacta.
In short, if a mom is beginning her search for ways to share or donate her milk, there’s a strong likelihood (six out of thirteen, including the three sponsored links and top ten links that appear on the results page) that the mom will land on a Prolacta-related link. And when she looks at any of these results, there’s a good chance she won’t know they are affiliated with Prolacta.
Dirty Secrets: What Prolacta Donor Sites Don’t Want You to Know
So exactly how does Prolacta secure donor milk? It’s a little tough to trace in some cases, and it seems to be deliberately so. Here are a few of the milk donation channels where a mom might donate her milk, thinking it’s going to a baby in need, when it’s really going to Prolacta:
A university hospital.
The International Breastmilk Project.
Helping Hands Milk Bank.
Those look like fairly legit milk banks. Some of them are even called milk banks. But notice the sub text under the Milkbanking.net logo: “A Prolacta milk banking network”.
It’s not just that one, though. Every one of those “milk banks” is actually SELLING the donated milk they receive to Prolacta Bioscience.
Do moms donating to these “milk banks” realize that their milk isn’t going directly to babies in need? That it’s going to Prolacta to be processed and turned into a product? That Prolacta is profiting from their donated milk? Unless they’re looking for that information, it’s unlikely. And why would they be searching for that? Surely a milk bank would never sell their milk…right?
Any company that’s creating any product would dream of getting their raw materials for free. And that’s exactly what Prolacta does: moms donate their milk for free, never see a dime from it, and Prolacta profits.
From their website:
Do milk donors receive any kind of compensation? Absolutely not.
Also from their website:
From Donor Milk to Processed Commodity: Prolact+ H2MF™
Their Standardized Human Milk product, PremieLact, is a ready-to-feed bottle of donor milk that’s been processed to have a “minimum of 20 Calories per fluid ounce and a target of 0.12g of protein per 10mL with NO minerals added.” Premies have very specific nutrition requirements (especially micro premies). In many cases, mothers of premies will produce milk that is custom-tailored to the needs of those babies. In some cases, premies will need supplementation to ensure they’re getting complete nutrition. Prolacta also makes Human Milk Fortifiers that are made from donor milk and are reduced to powders that can be added to expressed breast milk to fortify it.
“Not Competing with Milk Banks”…Or Are They?
Prolacta claims that they are not competing with nonprofit donor milk banks:
Note that they only address their “lead product” and not their Standardized Human Milk product. They don’t address PremieLact because it is in direct competition with nonprofit donor milk banks. The standardized milk produced by Prolacta is no different than the standardized milk routinely bottled at nonprofit milk banks.
Human milk banks around the country experience milk shortages on an ongoing basis. Prolacta’s products divert milk that could be processed and donated through nonprofit milk banks like those in the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). While there are fees associated with milk from milk banks, there are no profits built in to those costs. Milk banks in the HMBANA network are bona-fide nonprofits; no one is getting rich from the milk donated to those milk banks.
Vested Interests: Ex Nestlé Executive on the Board
Prolacta is careful to paint their business in the most sympathetic, faultless light possible. After all, their primary interest is in creating products that are “making the difference in the lives of premature infants.”
However, their Board members are a veritable who’s-who of experts in biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and venture capital. One in particular is noteworthy:
The man who established Nestlé infant formula to the US is a Prolacta board member. Interesting expertise to tap into, but certainly not an indictment. However, as things always seem to with Prolacta, it goes deeper than this.
Deal with the Devil: “Co-promotion” with Abbott, maker of Similac
A company that’s truly committed to and in favor of using human milk to feed human babies cannot be partnered with an infant formula company. That’s exactly what Prolacta Bioscience has done with Abbott Nutrition, the parent company of Similac infant formula.
And from another question in the FAQ on their relationship with Abbott:
“Abbott Nutrition is committed to ensuring optimal infant nutrition and has a long history of supporting breastfeeding with health care professionals and mothers by providing breastfeeding education materials, programs and infant nutrition products specifically designed for human milk fortification.”
Yes, they actually said that Abbott “has a long history of supporting breastfeeding.”
A board member from Nestlé; a partnership with Abbott. These are not the choices of a company committed to breast milk feeding.
The International Breast Milk Project
Donating milk to babies in need in South Africa sounds like a beautiful, altruistic thing to do. Unless the milk is running through Prolacta before it’s reaching those babies, that is.
The International Breast Milk Project provides the perfect nonprofit partner for Prolacta Bioscience. Prolacta can exploit moms’ emotions and appeal for milk donations for poor, sick, abandoned babies in South Africa. From the IMBP website:
Essentially, Prolacta used this appeal for charity to establish a database of donors. This opportunity provided Prolacta a “warm and fuzzy” association with milk donation and diverted attention from their for-profit activities. It’s an excellent business decision at the expense of moms, babies, and truly nonprofit milk banks.
Prolacta recently renewed their contract with the IBMP. Just 25% of the milk collected, projected to be 400,000 ounces over the next five years, is actually donated to babies in need. The rest is processed and turned into product which Prolacta sells for profit. This is almost certainly not what moms believe to be doing when they donate milk to the International Breast Milk Project.
Prolacta Bioscience, Inc. has announced a renewed agreement with the International Breast Milk Project (IBMP). Under the five-year agreement, which began November 20, 2010, Prolacta will process all donor breast milk collected through IBMP. Processing donor breast milk is a critical step prior to shipment because it ensures the milk’s safety. Prolacta’s unique milk processing includes donor screening, DNA matching to ensure donor identification, drug testing, pasteurization, final product testing, labeling, and packaging. Annually, Prolacta will process 25% of the first 400,000 ounces of donated breast milk for infants in Africa who have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS, or who are suffering from HIV/AIDS, malnourishment, poverty and disease. The remaining 75% will stay in the United States to make Prolacta’s human-milk-derived HMF for critically ill and premature infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICU). Should IBMP’s breast milk donations exceed 400,000 ounces, 10% of that amount above 400,000 ounces will be processed for shipment to Africa, and the remaining milk will stay in the U.S. Additionally, Prolacta will donate one dollar to IBMP for every ounce of milk that remains in the U.S. Both parties estimate that there will be two shipments to Africa per year, with the first shipment tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2011.
This is almost certainly not what moms believe they are doing when they donate milk to the International Breast Milk Project. And while donor milk is vital for abandoned babies, IBMP seems to neglect the fact that the World Health Organization recommends HIV-positive mothers do breastfeed, provided that they’re taking antiretrovirals. It would seem that producing, shipping, and distributing antiretrovirals to HIV-positive mothers makes much more financial and practical sense than securing donor milk, processing it, shipping it, and distributing it. It also preserves the health of the mother, something donor milk for babies can’t do.
The IBMP makes no mention of this on their website, though, despite the fact that following this protocol would preserve the direct mother-to-baby breastfeeding relationship, which is the World Health Organization’s top recommendation for infant feeding (and also the biological norm).
Milkin’ Mamas: Milkin’ Profits
Prolacta certainly isn’t the only one profiting from all this. The “milk banks” affiliated with Prolacta collect donor milk and sell it to Prolacta. Prolacta then processes the milk into product, which it sells and profits from.
Two moms in particular have created an impressive business out of the opportunity to play middle-man between milk donors and Prolacta: the Milkin’ Mamas. With clever, cute branding and an approachable, “we’re moms, just like you!” marketing bit, there’s not much to raise red flags. Searching deeper, though, reveals that this is a sophisticated sales operation that has little to do with helping babies and lots to do with making money.
Again, mothers are not paid or compensated for their donations; Milkin’ Mamas is for-profit; and Prolacta uses this milk as the raw material to create its products, which it sells for-profit.
While these faux milk banks aren’t forthcoming with the information regarding their relationships with Prolacta, some go out of their way to conceal it. Two Maids a Milkin’ runs the National Milk Bank – at a dot-org website extension, no less, implying nonprofit status. While their site and consent form take much language directly from other Prolacta-affiliated sites, they go out of their way not to name Prolacta anywhere.
What’s a Mom to do?
If moms want their milk to go to Prolacta, then the “milk banks” listed above (really, middle-man donation collectors) will do the trick. But if moms aren’t comfortable with Prolacta Bioscience making money off of their donations, they can opt to donate to any of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) banks. The milk will be processed and will go to the most vulnerable babies in need of breastmilk (and no one will profit; these banks charge what they must to cover their costs). Milk from HMBANA milk banks is especially vital to preterm infants with very specific nutrition requirements.
In cases where moms and babies are healthy and full-term, moms can also opt to share their milk informally. Ad hoc milk sharing groups like Eats on Feets, Human Milk 4 Human Babies, and milkshare.org all exist to match milk donors and recipients. (This is not an endorsement of any particular milk sharing group.) For more information on how breast milk can be shared safely, please see this information from the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition.
Do you think Prolacta’s business model is fair to moms? Is it ethical?
Edited to add: (6/25/11, 2:13am) Prolacta’s social media contractor has been commenting on this post. It’s an interesting twist. I posted about it: http://justwestofcrunchy.com/2011/06/25/prolactas-mole/
Edited to add: (6/29/11, 6:06pm) Prolacta’s CEO commented on this post, emailed me privately, and posted a rebuttal of this post on their website. I responded to their rebuttal of my post here: http://justwestofcrunchy.com/2011/06/28/prolacta-responds-to-swindled-the-ugly-side-of-milk-donation/