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Cambodia bans breast milk exports after international media coverage

Women’s Affairs Minister Ing Kantha Phavi speaks at the release of the ministry’s annual report yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Women’s Affairs Minister Ing Kantha Phavi speaks at the release of the ministry’s annual report yesterday in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Cambodia bans breast milk exports after international media coverage

Cambodia has permanently banned the sale and export of human breast milk a week after suspending exports by an American company that was harvesting it from impoverished mothers.

In a letter to the Ministry of Health yesterday, Cambodia’s governing Council of Ministers officially banned the sale and export of pumped human breast milk, putting an end to a controversial industry that has grabbed attention locally and worldwide.

Cambodian women began selling their breast milk to the Utah-based Ambrosia Labs over a year ago. They would generally earn between $7 and $10 per day for the sale of their milk, a sum that allowed many to support their families. But welfare officials argue the practice is exploitative and could impact the nutrition of the women’s children.

“Even if Cambodia is poor, it is still not alright for people to sell breast milk,” read the Council of Minister’s letter, which was signed by Secretary of State Ngor Nongly.

The Ministry of Health immediately responded by releasing a statement on its Facebook page asking Ambrosia Labs, which is currently the only company known to export Cambodian women’s breast milk, to terminate its activities immediately.

The government suspended Ambrosia’s trade a week ago after news of it gained traction in local and international media. The trade was first exposed by The Post in 2015, and drew wider attention after a recent article on the women’s website Broadly, part of Vice.com.

The sale of breast milk is a global trend, with mothers selling their excess lactation online via sites like Only the Breast to mothers who need it for their newborns, as well as to bodybuilders seeking “liquid gold”, cancer patients and breast milk-fetishists who get a sexual charge from consuming mother’s milk. Ambrosia insists its milk is sold to mothers who cannot supply enough milk on their own.

Company spokesmen could not immediately be reached to comment on the permanent ban.

At its annual meeting on Tuesday, the Cambodian Ministry of Women’s Affairs named the sale of breast milk and participation in commercial surrogacy as two of the newest issues impacting Cambodian women today. She noted that a law regulating the commercial surrogacy industry, in which a woman rents her womb to carry the child of strangers, should be completed in the near future.

“At first the sale of breast milk seemed to be happening on a very small scale, but now it seems this company was selling a lot of breast milk,” said Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi.

Phavi argued that the sale of breast milk could stunt children’s growth and development by thwarting the government’s efforts to promote breastfeeding among new mothers.

“The government had a program to push women to breastfeed their babies instead of using powdered formula,” she said. “But now women are selling their breast milk and continuing to feed their babies with formula.”

Pha Rem, 30, who sold breast milk to the US company, Ambrosia, rides her bicycle in Phnom Penh's Strung Meanchey district on March 21, 2017.
Pha Rem, 30, who sold breast milk to the US company, Ambrosia, rides her bicycle in Phnom Penh's Strung Meanchey district on March 21, 2017. Heng Chivoan

Ambrosia, however, has maintained that its work helps Cambodian mothers and children by encouraging women to breastfeed longer while providing them with a steady income. It said it allowed donors to pump no more than twice a day to ensure they had enough to feed their own children.

In a statement after the suspension it said: “We believe in empowering the mothers of Cambodia with a way to make money while nurturing their families, as well as others, through the donation of their excess milk.”

Ros Sopheap, executive director of the NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia, welcomed the government’s decision on Tuesday, saying that rather than empowering mothers, the breast milk industry was fuelling social inequality in Cambodia.

“The company has said that it is providing economic opportunities, but I don’t agree. They are not really helping the women, they are treating them as a tool to benefit themselves,” Sopheap said. “This is really against women’s rights and human rights. Even if the women agree to sell their breast milk, they are targeting poor and undereducated women.”

But some Cambodian mothers selling their breast milk have lamented the loss of the industry, saying it provided important supplemental income.

Chek Srey Toy, a 19 year-old mother of a one-year-old girl, said the $10 she made selling her breast milk every day allowed her to support her daughter.

“I would give some of my breast milk to my daughter and the rest to the company to sell,” she said. “I am very sorry that they closed. I am very poor, and I don’t know what to do.”

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