But maybe never wanted to ask anyone.
La Vierge à l'oeillet, Albrecht Durër (1516)
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.
In 2015, the world discovered the existence of the Bonyu Bar. It’s slightly lost in the middle of Kabukicho, a Tokyo neighborhood the Guide du Routard, a French backpacker’s guide, describes as “a bit dodgy.” Inside this greasy-spoon that sells human milk for its customers’ consumption, you can order a glass of the maternal beverage for about 15 bucks, or you can even straight-up feed “from the source"—meaning one of three resident “mothers.”
Milk fetishists, hold your horses: You probably won’t see a Bonyu Bar-type joint open up near you anytime soon. Consumption of human milk—natural for a newborn but subject to interrogation for an adult—raises all kinds of issues and concerns both economical and ethical, and in many places (including France), the over-the-counter human milk business, be it “at the teat” or in shot form, is strictly forbidden by law. And yet there are plenty of stories of athletes considering human milk a miracle remedy and going to remarkable lengths to get it, and that's not even to begin to touch on the fetish community. We asked Mathilde Cohen—a law professor at the University of Connecticut, an expert on international laws on human milk, and the author of Human Milk: A Food Like Any Other?—everything we could think of about the human milk market.
MUNCHIES: Hello, Mathilde. What made you interested in human milk?
Mathilde Cohen: When my daughter was born in 2013, I was living in Brooklyn. I subscribed to all kinds of newsletters and forums for neighborhood parents. Among the multitude of ads I received every day, I was particularly struck by ones from young mothers offering their own milk for sale, or even for free. They all emphasized first off that they had a “surplus stock” or “oversupply.”
I was just as astonished by the ads from families who were trying to obtain human milk—whether because it was two men, or a pair of adoptive parents, or mothers who couldn’t lactate because of a medical contraindication, or those who could partially lactate but didn’t have enough milk. I was intrigued, and immediately I set about researching the legal status of such transactions under both American and French law. I also started interviewing milk donors, recipients, and perinatal personnel, to better understand the reasons behind such exchanges.
And how does French law view human milk consumption?
French law says almost nothing about it. All it does is control lactariums [milk banks]. That said, we can regard the “peer-to-peer” sale and gift of human milk as implicitly forbidden if we consider that the milk is a product from the body, same as blood, organs, sperm, eggs and so forth.
Indeed, under Article 16-1 of the [French] Civil Code, “The human body, its parts and its products, cannot be subject to property law,” which could indicate that human milk could not be sold or given from party to party without passing through a lactarium. To my knowledge, at this time no jurisdiction has clarified this interpretation of the Code.
How would you describe the current human milk market in France?
Today there are two markets (as there are in the US). One is official and legal—the lactarium market. The other is underground and potentially illegal—the peer-to-peer market.
In reality, the former is a governmental monopoly. Since 1948, there have been establishments (largely public) whose business has been to collect milk from lactating women. These women are rigorously selected via a thorough health questionnaire and serological screening tests. The lactariums then process the milk (by mixing together milk from several donors, pasteurizing it, performing bacteriological tests on it, bottling it, etc.), and they distribute it to neonatology departments at French hospitals.
The latter is a black market that consists of women offering their milk for sale or free, and of families obtaining milk directly from donors without its first passing through a lactarium. The market is unregulated and operates largely via the Internet. Sometimes it can also operate simply within a family (i.e. two sisters are lactating; one sometimes gives the other her surplus milk)—or among a group of friends, or a larger social network.
Though unregulated, this market does self-regulate. The donors willingly provide information on their health (some voluntarily offer up their blood test results, for example) and their “life hygiene,” and some receiving families pasteurize the milk they get in order to avoid, or at least minimize, any potential viral or bacterial contaminations.
Doesn’t the emergence of this parallel market serve as proof that lactariums aren’t sufficient anymore?
French lactariums work very well, succeeding—from what I know—in meeting the needs of premature and hospitalized babies. They can even be called a model in terms of good practices and international efficacy. The problem, if there is one—and on this topic, opinions are mixed—is that the demand for human milk goes beyond simply that of hospitalized babies. As discussed earlier, in all kinds of situations, families want to get human milk to feed their children.
"There's also demand for it on the part of adult consumers, even it remains peripheral—for example, cancer patients, athletes, or even simply fetishists."
There's also a demand for it on the part of adult consumers, even if it remains peripheral. We’re talking about a motley group consisting of cancer patients (the immunological properties of human milk are thought to be particularly good at counteracting secondary chemotherapy effects and perhaps even facilitating healing), athletes (human milk is treated as a “recovery drink” that helps build muscle), and fetishists (for whom human milk is an erotic object).
That said, today’s lactariums aren’t in the business of responding to this type of logic. Their mission is to support hospitalized infants, period. So, the question is: Should we reform lactariums so as to make them cater to a bigger public? Or rather, do we need to create a second-string team of less strict lactariums to meet these new demands? Are the informal peer-to-peer markets simply not working well enough to absorb all the different kinds of needs?
Is it possible we’ll see human milk become an ordinary product available at the corner store?
This is far from a sci-fi premise. In the United States (unlike in France), and several other countries, you can already go to certain specialty businesses to buy human milk. It’s pasteurized or sterilized, and sold in packages very similar to cow milk. At least three American companies sell human milk via their websites: Medolac, Ambrosia, and the International Milk Bank.
These businesses don’t show their prices online, but according to some pundits, Prolacta, for example, sells its milk to hospitals starting at $304 per liter. Knowing that a baby under six months old consumes between 650 and 900 ml of milk per day, you can only imagine how much you’d spend to nourish that baby exclusively with commercial human milk.
Mathilde Cohen teaches at the University of Connecticut School of Law. She has published numerous articles on the subject “Regulating Milk: Women and Cows in France and the United States,” which you can read here.
Correction: A previous version of this story described Prolacta as a company selling human milk to the public. It sells milk by prescription only for use in hospital neonatal intensive care units. MUNCHIES regrets the error.