Pha Rem has a lightly freckled face and a bicycle laden with vegetables – lotus root still wet from the river.
Peddling the greens to market is a meagre source of income – bringing in around $5 a day – but after the government temporarily halted exports of human breast milk to the United States on Monday, it’s all she has.
She’s been part of an obscure international trade taking breast milk from mothers in the developing world. The trade is billed as helping mothers in rich countries nourish babies – though the breast milk is also sought after by bodybuilders and fetishists.
“I really struggle to earn a living. Collecting vegetables can be very hard; I go into the water and I’m afraid of drowning,” she said yesterday, on the dusty, rubbish-lined streets of Stung Meanchey district.
“I have been a widow since my baby was three months in the womb,” she said. Her husband had mental health issues; she doesn’t elaborate on his death.
So when her daughter was 6 months old, she seized an opportunity – pumping her excess milk so it could be pasteurised, frozen and sent to American women in a scheme run by Utah-based Ambrosia Labs which promotes its products to mothers.
“I feel very happy to provide my milk. I never thought of giving my child less,” she said, explaining the company had taught her more about infant nutrition.
But Ambrosia Labs suspended its milk collection and exports in the past two weeks after the government ordered a stop to the trade pending an investigation into whether women may be neglecting their own children in order to earn more money pumping for babies abroad.
“I feel very hopeless after the company closed down. Please get my work back,” Rem said.
Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng yesterday doubled down on the suspension of Ambrosia Labs’s exports of Cambodian mothers’ milk, saying a committee had been established to advise him on the legality of the issue. “All the exploitation or commercialisation of human products should be prohibited – that is my own view,” he said.
“We encourage the women to feed their own children and breastfeeding is one of our policies.”
It’s the latest reaction rapidly halting the growing commodification of motherhood in the Kingdom, with the minister issuing a complete ban on surrogacy last October.
Both surrogacy and the breast milk collection industry had flowered in Cambodia for well over a year prior to the government crackdowns.
The sale of breast milk is a global trend abroad, with mothers selling their excess lactation online via sites like Only the Breast to mothers needing it for their newborns, as well as bodybuilders seeking “liquid gold”, cancer patients, and breast milk-fetishists who get a sexual charge from consuming mother’s milk.
But collecting breast milk in developing countries like Cambodia and selling it to wealthy Americans is a less common thread in that movement.
Ambrosia Labs founder Bronzson Woods yesterday moved to assuage government fears, explaining the company requires mothers to breastfeed their children for six months prior to selling to the company.
“We take the health of our donors and their children very seriously,” he said. “Ambrosia is increasing the amount of breast milk that actually gets to infants by giving mothers a financial reason to continue to breastfeed their children.”
He added mothers were only permitted to give breast milk twice a day, meaning they had to continue to breastfeed their own children to keep their supply up, and that Ambrosia – which he said had been cleared by US customs and the Food and Drug Administration – conducted ongoing health screenings for mothers and their children.
The precise amount of breast milk exported abroad by the company remained unclear yesterday.
Despite the benefits Woods touted, UNICEF Cambodia spokesperson Iman Morooka said the for-profit industry should be permanently shuttered. “UNICEF believes that breast milk banks should never be operated by exploiting vulnerable and poor women for profit and commercial purposes,” she said via email. “Breast milk could be considered as human tissue, the same as blood, and as such its commercialization should be banned.”
She added breast milk bank programs within the country were important to help premature or orphaned babies, but these non-profit schemes also had to be managed effectively.
Rem is not the only woman scrambling for new employment after the government’s step. Several women dotted around the sprawling Stung Meanchey trash heap have given their breast milk to Ambrosia and are now trying to eke out a living.
Rubbish collector Touch Pha, 24, earns around $5 a day and says his wife Lorn Ren, sold her milk regularly.
“I think it is kind of weird or very uncommon, because usually we see people selling meat or chicken, but now they take breast milk,” he said. “But we are in hardship, we have a shortage of money.”
Khorn Vanny, 27, said she tried it once, describing how the breast pump was shaped like a funnel used for pouring gasoline. A neighbour brought her to the clinic – her milk was extracted and tested in a room with eight other women; but she found she was only able to produce a small amount and received 9,000 riel ($2.25) for her trouble.
Vanny decided she could earn more washing dishes for the local noodle restaurant – around $100 a month.
Cutting a green mango into slices for her 2-year-old son, she says the one-off experience was an altruistic one – she felt she was able to help women on the other side of the world who could not feed their child as she could.
“I feel somehow when we give away our milk, we are helping our children. It’s like the other child is also our child,” she said.