As an increasing number of parents seek out milk banks and informal milk sharing groups as a way to make sure their infants have access to breast milk, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has voiced concern over the safety and risks of milk sharing, especially when human milk is obtained directly from individuals or Internet-based milk sharing groups.
According to a warning released November 30, 2010, the FDA cautions parents who seek out donor milk that feeding a baby with human milk from a source other than the baby’s mother may raise possible health and safety risks for the baby, including exposure to infectious diseases, chemical contaminants, and to a limited number of prescription drugs that might be in the human milk, if the donor has not been adequately screened. The FDA also warns that if human milk is not handled and stored properly, it could, like any type of milk, become contaminated and unsafe to drink.
A special FDA panel met on December 6, 2010, to discuss regulation of breast milk sharing, but decided to take no action at this time beyond this warning.
For parents who are considering using donor milk, the FDA recommends the following guidelines:
- Consult a healthcare provider first: Making the choice to feed a baby donor milk should be made in consultation with the baby’s healthcare provider, because the nutritional needs of each baby depend on many factors including the baby’s age and health.
- Don't use milk from unscreened donors: When breast milk is obtained directly from individuals, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested, or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby.
- Research milk banks: Milk banks (such as those run by hospitals) are the safest route for obtaining donated milk, but still make sure the bank has procedures in place to screen milk donors, and safely collect, process, handle, test, and store the milk.
In a few states, there are required safety standards for milk banks, but most still rely on self-regulation. You can contact your state’s department of health to find out if it has information on milk banks in your area. The FDA also recommends contacting the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), a voluntary professional association for human milk banks. HMBANA issues voluntary safety guidelines for member banks on screening donors, and collecting, processing, handling, testing, and storing milk.