Some mothers are unable to successfully provide breast milk to their infants, and thus use pasteurized donor milk, which is considered an acceptable and even recommended source for preterm infants in particular. There are regulated milk banks of donor milk, which is available. These regulated milk banks screen donors and pasteurize milk to remove potential pathogens. The demand for this is great enough that there are several human milk sharing websites that connect donors and recipients that allow purchase of the milk directly from the donor. However, the method of milk collection and transport of the milk is at the discretion of the seller.
An investigation was conducted and published in the journal, Pediatrics, in which researchers compared the bacterial and viral contamination in 101 Internet samples that were obtained from individual sellers. These were then compared to 20 samples that were obtained from a licensed milk bank before pasteurization.
One finding was that the Internet shipments of samples varied with longer transit times and also had increased bacterial counts. Gram-negative organisms and Staphylococcus species were more frequently found and in higher numbers in the Internet samples than the licensed milk bank samples. None of the samples tested positive for HIV, but 21% of the Internet samples and 5% of the milk bank samples did test positive for cytomegalovirus. Some of the milk sellers claimed organic. This did not correlate with lower bacterial or viral counts.
Commentary: There are many important health benefits short term and long term to support the use of human breast milk feeding of infants. It is especially beneficial in preterm infants. However, given that it is a bodily fluid, it does have the potential to transmit infectious agents. Based on the results of this study, I would recommend avoiding raw breast milk purchased from unregulated Internet sites as it may put infants at risk for infection and this could even outweigh the benefits. This study did not address environmental contamination of breast milk that is a result of our modern world. I am definitely not an expert on this topic, but I have read from experts, that even given the environmental pollutant contamination of human breast milk, the benefits of human breast milk for infants, does indeed outweigh the concerns and risks of these pollutants as we understand it today. It’s shameful to me, that we have allowed our world to progress in such a way that historically, one of the most pure and critically important nutrient sources also then exposes infants and young children to pollutants at such a young age.
Keim S, et al. Microbial contamination of human milk purchased via the Internet. Pediatrics 2013 Nov; 132:e1227.