When Laura Auer’s son was born with a cleft palate last year, doctors told her to use a breast pump to get her milk to him until his condition could be fixed.
She did, and soon her body was producing more milk than little Jude could drink. Auer decided to donate her extra supply, but a quick Internet search on “breast milk donation” raised more questions than it answered, she said.
All the milk banks that popped up boasted that they would get her milk to babies in need. But many of them, banks with names like Helping Hands Milk Bank and Milkin’ Mamas, featured a company logo: Prolacta Bioscience.
Auer said she had to look at the milk bank’s FAQs to learn that the company uses breast milk donations to make a milk fortifier for premature babies that it then sells at a profit.
“It seems a little frustrating that they’re not forthcoming with how they’re going to use the milk,” said Auer, who wound up donating about 6,000 ounces of milk through private connections and milk share websites. “The homepage gives you that candy-coated simplistic view.”
Officials at Prolacta say they're aware of this criticism, and even in the weeks since the I-Team began asking questions, they have moved information about their company’s for-profit status up higher on their FAQs.
Scott Elster, CEO of Prolacta Bioscience, said in an interview that he never intended to hide anything from Prolacta’s donors.
He’s proud of the Prolacta product, which he says is the only milk fortifier made from human breast milk, a product that he says helps premature babies develop and avoid one of the most dangerous ailments they face: an intestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis.
He says feeding a premature baby Prolacta costs between $5,000 and $10,000 for a 70-day course of therapy.
The benefits of breast milk over formula have been widely touted in recent years, leading to increased interest both in donating breast milk and in obtaining donated breast milk for babies whose mothers cannot nurse them.
There are several ways to donate milk, and Prolacta is not the only one that has been questioned in recent months. Another popular method -- the one Auer chose -- is private milk sharing, often though informal websites connecting donors with families in need. That method came under some scrutiny last month, when a study found that breast milk obtained that way was often contaminated with high levels of bacteria.
There are also nonprofit milk banks, mostly run through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which accept milk from donors, screen it and provide it to individual babies and hospitals at a price just high enough to cover their expenses – usually between $3.50 and $4 an ounce, according to milk bank web sites.
Elster said the moms they work with are notified at several stages of the donation process about where their donations go.
“It’s not in our interest to trick a mom,” said Elster. “We want moms to know exactly where their milk is going. And their milk is going to make the only product that’s clinically demonstrated to reduce the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis.”
Prolacta is just starting to be seen in local hospitals. The Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., announced last month that it will be the first hospital in Connecticut or New York to carry the fortifier.
Jennifer Anderson, a mother of two from Playa del Ray, Calif., said she chose Prolacta deliberately as the place she wanted to donate her milk. She said she believes the company is safe, organized and gets her milk to the neediest babies.
The fact that they make a profit doesn’t bother her.
“I feel comfortable in what I’m doing because it’s for babies that need it,” she said. The mother of two said she’s been told that she has supplied enough milk to Prolacta to “save two babies,” and that makes her feel great.
“It’s not like they’re taking my exact product and putting a price tag on it,” she said. “They’re adding to it.”
Other moms say they’re just not comfortable with donating something so personal to be developed into a product that will be sold at a high price, putting money in someone else’s pockets.
“It kind of goes against the whole point,” said Anna Massion, a Greenwich, Conn. mom who said she was put off by Prolacta’s for-profit model and what she felt was a lack of transparency online.
“You’re trying to share with someone that might be in a less fortunate situation than you . Why would you donate your milk so that someone else could go and resell it?”