The Government has ordered a recall of breast milk supplied to newborns after an investigation found some was contaminated with lead, the Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Around 30 families have been contacted by the Food Standards Agency after tests found milk supplied by NeoKare Nutrition and given to their infants via the contained elevated levels of the toxic metal, which can be particularly harmful to young children.
NeoKare is the country’s only private milk bank and the discovery raises fresh concerns about the growing commercial trade in human breast milk in the UK.
Around 30 families have been contacted by the Food Standards Agency after tests found milk supplied by NeoKare Nutrition and given to their infants via the NHS contained elevated levels of the toxic metal, which can be particularly harmful to young children
While NHS milk banks have existed for decades and rely on donations, NeoKare sources its milk from women prepared to ‘pump for profit’.Its milk products – including powdered and frozen breast milk – have been used to feed babies in seven NHS hospitals, according to the FSA.
The FSA recall of four of NeoKare’s products yesterday included a powdered ‘milk fortifier’ used to boost the nutrient content of human milk given to premature babies.It was given to some infants as part of a clinical trial at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.
Breast milk naturally contains some traces of the metal, and there is no legislation which sets a legal maximum level.But the fortified product, which is designed solely for medical purposes, does have a maximum legal limit.
Lead can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, and delayed growth and development, but problems are generally linked to repeated exposure to high doses over a long period of time.
The firm was investigated after an anonymous tip-off to Trading Standards, who took samples from NeoKare’s processing plant in Redditch near Birmingham and then ran tests at a government lab.
Junior Johnson, of the FSA, said: ‘This situation is understandably worrying for the parents and guardians affected.We have worked closely with public health authorities and the NHS to assess the risk to health, which is likely to be low.’
The FSA investigation shines fresh light on the increasingly popular trade in human breast milk in the UK – a practice campaigners say should be made illegal over fears women are being exploited amid the cost-of-living crisis.
There is growing demand for human milk sold online in private Facebook groups, predominantly to other mothers, who buy it for around £1 an ounce.But there is also a more surprising – and growing – market from men, such as those with breast milk fetishes.
Breast milk also can appeal to bodybuilders believing its high nutrient content boosts muscle mass, and athletes hoping to enhance their performance, as well as to cancer patients.
While women working with NeoKare are screened for infectious disease before selling their milk, and the milk is processed and pasteurised at a specialist plant in Worcestershire, unregulated online trades are not subject to health checks.The milk can be diluted with water or mixed with milk from other sources. Auction site eBay has banned its sale on the web site.
Linden Jack, head of food safety policy at the FSA said: ‘We strongly advise against buying breastmilk from individuals, including over the internet, as it could be harmful.If you are sourcing breastmilk for your babies, you should seek advice from your health care professional.’
But the profits to be made are substantial. Last year, British mother Mila De’Brito called breastmilk ‘liquid gold’ in a viral TikTok post where she claimed she had made £10,000 selling it to bodybuilders.
Many women selling online have now been recruited by NeoKare, which has driven down the price it is prepared to pay them, some told the MoS.
Anna, from North Somerset, sold to endurance runners and bodybuilders on private social media groups before signing up to NeoKare when the cost-of-living crisis hit while she was on maternity leave with her second child, now 18 months.
She said the firm contacted her via private message on Facebook after seeing her post offering her spare milk for sale.
She said: ‘The income helped a lot financially.At the height of it, when the rate was £1 an ounce, I was making £1,000 a month.’
Yet she soon felt ‘exploited’ when NeoKare slashed the price to 25p per ounce. Parents buying it privately from the company online pay £45 for six 50ml bottles of frozen milk – over 20 times what Anna was paid.
Anna said: ‘The mark-up is insane.At £1 an ounce, it was a relatively decent little sideline to have while on maternity leave, but I got the feeling that NeoKare realised the cost-of-living crisis was happening, women were getting desperate, and so they could lower their price and women would still pump because they need the money.’
Lace Scott, from Ballymena in Northern Ireland, relied on donor milk – provided at no cost – to help feed her daughter Luna, now 19 months, because she had a breast condition that prevented her from making enough milk.
But she said charging for it was ‘unethical’.
‘When I read about NeoKare’s prices I remember being horrified and thinking I could never afford that,’ she said.’I think they really take advantage of mothers and babies.’
The Baby Feeding Law Group, an alliance of 30 health organisations including the National Childbirth Trust and the Royal College of Midwives, has previously written to the Department of Health warning about NeoKare’s practices.
It said last night: ‘No other bodily fluids or parts are allowed to be sold in the UK, and we believe that breastmilk should be no different.’
Dr Sarah Steele, a health researcher at the University of Cambridge, agrees it should be banned.
‘The Government should ask serious questions if we want mums who are struggling to be selling valuable calories,’ Dr Steele said.’There is a difference between donating excess milk that isn’t being consumed to the NHS, and selling milk that would otherwise go to one’s own child in order to afford the heating bill.’
Dr Steele’s research has also found that NeoKare is using ‘aggressive sales tactics’ to market directly to NHS Trusts, with sales reps even showing up on hospital neonatal wards to try and sell their products – a practice she described as ‘concerning’ and ‘reminiscent of the way Nestle marketed formula milk in the 1970s’.
NeoKare is the sister company of an Indian firm called NeoLacta Life Sciences.
The Indian Government has twice revoked NeoLacta’s licence to sell breastmilk following concerns it had exploited poor Indian women used as donors.
Companies House documents show the company has only one registered director, 39-year-old Australian national Surabh Aggarwal, who lives in India.
NeoKare did not respond to calls from the MoS.
A statement on its website said: ‘We have been working with the local authority and the Food Standards Agency because lead has been found in a small number of our products.Putting public health in the forefront, we have taken the precautionary basis to recall all the products manufactured by NeoKare Ltd.’