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A woman breast feeds her new born at the Maternal and Child Health Center in Phnom Penh.
A woman breast feeds her new born at the Maternal and Child Health Center in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Exports of breast milk halted

The government yesterday temporarily banned the export of breast milk from Cambodian women to the US market, citing fears that children’s nutrition may be neglected.

The decision to halt exports from Ambrosia Labs – the only company currently collecting Cambodian breast milk to sell in the States – was signed off by Finance Minister Aun Porn Moniroth yesterday, according to Rath Nisay, legal officer at the General Department of Customs and Excise.

The temporary suspension is to allow the Ministry of Health and other relevant authorities to determine whether the practice – which has been going on for well over a year – is, in fact, legal.

“The big concern is about Cambodian children’s nutrition,” Nisay said.

“We suspended the exports because we are not sure if the mother provides enough breast milk to their baby or if they only keep breast milk for selling and find other food for the baby.”

Bronzson Woods, founder of Utah-based Ambrosia Labs, which operates out of Stung Meanchey, yesterday said “we have suspended all operation in Cambodia for the time being”.

“We informed the donors well ahead of time what was going on,” he said via email. “Customs has requested that we get a ruling from the Ministry of Health confirming that breast milk is not a human organ.”

In a 2015 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Woods stressed: “We don’t want to be taking milk out of children’s mouths.” Nisay confirmed the company had provided documents showing women were not employed by them until they had breastfed their baby for the first six months.

According to an article on Vice.com published last week and authored by a former Post reporter, about 50 women – many of them poor – have been employed by the company to sell their excess breast milk for 64 cents an ounce, typically making a little over $7 a day. The milk is then sold in the US for $4 an ounce.

In an interview with AFP, Chea Sam, a 30-year-old mother, said she had been selling her breast milk for the past three months, earning up to $10 a day, six days a week.

“I am poor, and selling breast milk helped me a lot,” she said.

“We all cried when the company informed us about the suspension. We want it to be in business.”

In a YouTube video posted by “Kun Meada”, which roughly translates to “gratitude for the mother” in Khmer, a man purporting to be Woods’s father asks the prime minister and the Health Ministry to change tack.

The man, who identifies himself as Lemonde Woods, spoke of the company’s mission to “empower women” and “do business well by doing good”.

“We’re anxious to give that good here to Cambodia as well,” he said, explaining that donated breast milk could be used to nourish abandoned babies in the Kingdom.

“But if we can’t keep the doors open and continue to export into America to . . . sell it to women and babies there in America who need it, then this business is over.”

Another customs official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak with the media, added that there was concern about the export of a human product and questioned whether it existed on a similar plane to organ trafficking.

“Because it is from the human body, we are afraid they have a virus,” he said. He admitted the company had exported the breast milk on six occasions already.

“Yes, but it was just a little, that’s why we allowed them to do it without permission from the Ministry of Health; it was only a little and a sample only, that’s why we let them go,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP

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