Purchasing breast milk online could leave infants susceptible to various types of bacteria including Salmonella and even fecal matter. Researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital analyzed over 100 samples of breast milk found online to decide how frequently contaminated breast milk is sold over the Internet and what effect it can have on a developing newborn.

"Our goal is to identify infant feeding practices that optimize child and maternal health,” said Sarah A. Keim, Ph.D., from the Center for Biobehavioral Health at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital. “In addition to lactation consultants who are available at hospitals and clinics, there are community-based lactation consultants and peer-support organizations where women can help each other.”

Twelve non-profit milk banks operate under the Human Milk Banking Association of North America’s guidelines for safe breast milk production, storage, and shipping in the United States. Pasteurization, or the process of heating milk to a certain temperature in order to kill any harmful bacteria, is required for breast milk to be deemed safe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw or unpasteurized milk is at least 150 times more likely to cause a disease outbreak compared to pasteurized milk. Individuals who sell breast milk online fail to provide essential information, including method for hygienic milk handling and storage, disease screening, and abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

"Major milk-sharing websites post a lot of guidance about milk collection, storage, shipping and provider screening,” Dr. Keim added. “However, results from this study showed sellers do not often follow this advice because hygiene and shipping practices were often compromised.”

Dr. Keim and her colleagues purchased 101 breast milk samples from sellers over the Internet and compared them against 20 samples taken from milk banks. After examining the samples back at their lab facilities, the research team discovered that over three-fourths of breast milk samples purchased online contained bacteria that could be potentially harmful to infants.

While improper milk handling and storage were identified as contributing factors to the samples' quality, shipping methods were also deemed inadequate. Around 19 percent of online sellers did not provide dry ice to keep breast milk samples at the appropriate temperature during delivery.

"Based on our research, it is not safe to buy breast milk online, and the Food and Drug Administration recommends against sharing milk obtained in that way,” explained Keim. “Recipients are not able to determine for sure if the milk has been tampered with, or contains harmful drugs or pharmaceuticals, or if the information the provider supplied about their health was truthful."

Bacteria and other contaminants found in breast milk sold online could lead to serious health implications for infants with compromised immune systems. Clean breast milk can also protect a developing newborn from potentially life-threatening illnesses such as necrotizing enterocolitis. Keim recommends that women with extra breast milk donate it to milk banks that are trained to properly handle and distribute samples.

Source: Hogan J, McNamara K, Gudiemetla V, Dillon C, Kwiek J, Keim S. Microbial Contamination of Human Milk Purchased Via the Internet. Pediatrics. 2013.