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My Thoughts on the Prolacta / International Breast Milk Project Arrangement

Looking for The Lactivist? She's retired. But you CAN still find Jen blogging. These days, she's runs A Flexible Life. Join her for life, recipes, projects and the occasional rant.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

So I've had a few days to mull things over since Jill shared the new agreement between the International Breast Milk Project and Prolacta. I've also had a chance to send a few emails back and forth with Jill to clarify some points and to answer a few questions that I still had. Now that I've had some time to digest things, I think I'm willing to lay out my current thoughts on the subject.

(No idea what I'm talking about? Check out my original post asking if the International Breast Milk Project is a scam?)

Where Things Stand Now

First, let me lay out the facts about the relationship between Prolacta and the International Breast Milk Project according to Jill.

1.) Jill is NOT employed, paid or in any way compensated by Prolacta for her work with the International Breast Milk Project. While she does devote herself to the project full time, she is a volunteer. She tells me that she has reimbursed herself "around $3000" in the last year to cover her own personal expenses. She says that there are no plans for her to earn an income from either the IBMP or Prolacta.

2.) Prolacta and the International Breast Milk Project had collected roughly 55,000 ounces of donated milk for Africa as of May 31st, 2007. Prolacta had shipped around 15,000 ounces to Africa. They have confirmed that they will ship 55,000 ounces to Africa. In other words, ALL of the milk collected prior to June 1st WILL be shipped to Africa.

3.) Beginning June 1st, Prolacta will ship 25% of the milk received via the International Breast Milk Project to Africa. The remaining 75% of collected milk will be "purchased" from the IBMP at a cost of $1 an ounce. These funds are to be sent directly to the centers in Africa that are using the milk for the purpose of setting up their own systems. Prolacta and the International Breast Milk Project estimate that this will amount to roughly $50,000 to $75,000 a year in funding.

4.) The International Breast Milk Project has had more than 800 applicants but has only processed and accepted 275 donors.

5.) While the shipping from the United States to Africa is donated by various shipping companies, Prolacta's "cost" for supporting the project includes blood testing, shipping from donor moms to Prolacta and the milk screening and processing.

6.) Prolacta has been in business since 1999 and has made less than $1 million in the last seven years.

7.) The International Breast Milk Project has committed to yearly reporting on the amount of donor milk collected, the amount sent to Africa and the amount of funds raised from Prolacta.

What This News Changes

The main thing that all of this changes is the idea of transparency.

You may recall that my primary motivator for my original post was the fact that moms were being drawn in to donate to a "tear-jerker" (but obviously wonderful) cause and that Prolacta might be profiting hugely from those mother's altruistic intentions.

If everything runs as Jill says it will, that risk is somewhat negated. Any mom that does even the smallest bit of reading on the IBMP site will know what percentage of their milk is going to end up in Africa.

Ultimately, that was the main goal of my post. To make sure that moms had the ability to make informed decisions. It appears that they will now be able to do so.

What This News Doesn't Change

So there's no denying that the IBMP and Prolacta stepped up to the plate when it came to transparency, but the reality is that this new information doesn't really do much to improve my opinion of the arrangement.

In fact, it pretty much confirms my own feelings that as a donor mom, I'd be sticking with HMBANA.

Here's why.

1.) While I understand that Prolacta spends a lot of money on screening, shipping and processing, there's a HUGE difference between recouping costs and making a profit. The system as it is set up now leaves them in a position with a strong potential for profit. The idea of a company profiting off of the donated milk of a mother seeking to help someone doesn't sit well with me.

The current agreement means that Prolacta will get about 75,000 ounces of breast milk a year in exchange for processing and giving away about 25,000 ounces of breast milk. For a company that has had a hard time gathering donors, this seems like a pretty fair trade. Sure, they're paying $1 an ounce for the 75K ounces, but they're also factoring in the cost of those other 25K ounces. Prolacta is not going to lose money on this deal, so you know that they know they can still come out ahead based on the 75K ounces.

2.) It's a bad business model. Sure there's money to be made...but as an entrepreneur I have to frown on any company that builds their business model off a process that requires someone else to provide your raw materials for free. Can you imagine Del Monte expecting farmers to ship their fruit and vegetable to them out of the goodness of their hearts? Why should breast milk be any different?

I'm a capitalist at heart. I believe in business and in charging what the market will bear. I don't believe that "essential" products should be given away for free. At the same time...I don't believe in profiting off of good will. In other words, if I found out that the Red Cross was selling 75% of my donated blood to a pharmaceutical company, I'd be equally upset.

3.) For every question answered, another one gets raised. For example, Prolacta has suddenly started promoting their "human milk based fortifier" and speaks of it repeatedly in the new FAQ section. Unfortunately, I cannot find any info on exactly what this is. I also can't find ANY confirmation that they have a true human milk fortifier other than what's on their web site. Considering the risks associated with milk fortifiers in micro-preemies (necrotizing entercolitis for one) and the fact that those risks would mostly vanish with the intro of a true human milk based fortifier, I'm honestly astounded that I can find no mention in the mainstream press, medical journals, IBCLC sites, Preemie sites, and so on.

In fact, I find it amazing that none of the the wildly intelligent women that I know who have had babies stay in NICUs within the last year have been able to find any information about a human based milk fortifier being available.

Thus, I'd love to hear more from Prolacta about exactly what it is that they have. Are they simply gathering the milk together and skimming off the top 10%...the way you'd take cream from cow's milk? That would create breast milk with incredibly high fat and calorie counts. It would also leave 90% of the milk to be used for pharmaceutical research.

Or, are they somehow creating an entirely need product that's formed from breast milk, but is a "new" product entirely? I'd just love to hear more about this and I cannot find any information at all apart from fuzzy marketing speak and press releases.

Where Does This Leave You?

Well, it depends on how you feel about all of the above. I can't (and won't) tell you what you should do. I can simply tell you to read the information, consider the situation and decide where you want to donate your milk.

If you aren't near a HMBANA bank and want to donate badly enough to be ok with just 25% going to Africa, then go for it. If you are near a HMBANA bank and still want to donate to Prolacta, then that's your choice too.

They've certainly given us answers... I just can't say that they've made me happy.


  1. Blogger Amanda | 5:16 AM |  

    I can't thank you enough for addressing this issue and pressuring IBMP for some answers. I'm one of the moms who emailed you a while ago when I was approved to be a donor.

    I'm glad they are putting this info on their website, so future donors will know exactly how they operate.

    Personally, I've decided to send my milk elsewhere. I'd rather give a monetary donation to support their work in Africa (which I'm assuming $ donations have nothing to do with Prolacta?) and know that my efforts at pumping milk are being put to better use.

    Thank you again for bringing this into the light.

  2. Anonymous newmommy | 10:57 AM |  

    This is my first time participating in a ‘blog’ discussion, but I couldn’t resist reading (and now writing) because I am a new mom, with LOTS of extra milk, and am unsure what to do with it all besides continue growing the inventory in my freezer.
    I think your efforts can been viewed as admirable to promote HMBANA as a nonprofit organization, but as a former corporate executive turned stay-at-home mom, I think your lack of understanding of a capitalist business model creates a bias that negates a goal stated on your website which is “supporting nursing moms…..and human milk bank donation.”
    While you may have your opinions about HMBANA and Prolacta, you really can’t say that you are a “capitalist at heart” if you are criticizing a classic partnership between the for-profit and non-profit worlds for the benefit of sick babies.

    Your comment about the Red Cross brings up a good point, and it is clear that you are not aware that the Red Cross does, in fact, sell donated blood and plasma to pharmaceuticals….for the benefit of sick people. I know this from personal experience, but if you want to read for yourself, here is are a couple examples: http://www.hemophilia.org/News/medicalnews/mn_03_01_05.htm or
    Red Cross, understandably, uses proceeds from sales to support other parts of their business. Nothing wrong with that. But we can’t have it both ways….if Prolacta uses a portion of donations to help babies, then why do we have a double standard?

    Thank you for raising this point about Red Cross however….Red Cross and Prolacta business models don’t seem to be much different…..other than the fact that Red Cross is a multi-million dollar operation, and according to your blog, Prolacta has made less then one million in the past seven years (not sure how they stay in business, quite honestly). I don’t hold nonprofits to a higher standard simply because they are nonprofits….i seem to remember Red Cross going into crisis mode for their fundraising efforts related to 9/11 and Katrina, because the majority of the donations were going to their general fund as opposed to going directly to people impacted by the tragedies. At least IBMP and Prolacta are being upfront about exactly what they are doing with donations and the milk. The honestly is refreshing.

    I am still not sure what I am going to do with my extra milk, but I do know that I will be doing some thorough research of my own – going with HMBANA simply because they are nonprofit does not cut it for me….i need to know that my donation is truly making a difference. Not sure IBMP is right choice for me either. Thank you for the reading over the past few days – it has been interesting to say the least!

  3. Blogger tanya@motherwearblog | 12:15 PM |  

    Wait, I'm confused. Prolacta buys some of the milk for $1 an ounce, and that money goes to Africa, but I remember that they're selling it for over $30 an ounce, right?

    So, that means that they do stand to make a profit on milk donated for free by moms.

    If this is the case, I think it needs to be much more clearly stated. I'm with you - the bottom line issue is informed choice - but it's still not transparent, I think.


  4. Blogger The Lactivist | 12:18 PM |  

    Newmommy, thanks for joining the conversation.

    I am aware that the Red Cross does sell some of the blood they receive, but it is my understanding that it's a small portion, not a clear cut majority. If I've misunderstood, then you are right, I need to do more research. (Though the reality is that it won't matter, they blackballed me as a donor a few years back for a mistaken liver enzyme screening. I went to the doc to have it checked and then contacted them and they said "thanks, but once you are "out" you're out for good.)

    I can be a capitalist and not like this setup. As I mentioned, it's not a good business plan. Any business that relies on altruistic donors to supply their "raw materials" is not operating off of a good business plan.

    If Prolacta wants to start purchasing the breast milk directly from mothers? Well, apart from the potential ethical issues there, the realty is that at least they'd have a more stable busines plan.

    But no, I don't think a plan that says "give me your X for free so that I can sell it at profit" is a capialistic one. ;)

    Keep in mind, there are lots of options apart from Prolacta and HMBANA. There's milk share, there's private donation, there's casual sharing...tons of options. Like you said, I'd encourage you to do your research and to donate to the group you feel best about.

  5. Blogger The Lactivist | 12:29 PM |  


    I'm the last person to come to Prolacta's defense, but as you know, I also want to present a fair case...

    I imagine that Prolacta would respond to that by pointing out...

    1.) They state that their human milk fortifier is "10 times more concentrated than breast milk" which would imply that it may take 10 ounces (or more) of breast milk to make 1 ounce of fortifier.

    2.) They are providing breast pumps, sending someone to your house for blood draw and paying for all shipping and shipping materials.

    I spoke with a reporter earlier this week who told me that Prolacta claims their average "cost" per donor is around $600. I'd believe that based on what I know of HMBANA costs and how much more Prolacta pays for.

    So let's say the average mom donates 1000 ounces. At $600 donor aquisition cost, they are getting the milk for 60 cents an ounce.

    Let's say it takes 10 ounces to make one ounce of this fortifier product.

    That suddenly raises you to $6 per ounce without any marketing/staffing/processing or equipment fees.

    Now that still might leave a healthy profit margin, and I don't know if the million in profit is because they haven't sold much, or because they have a thin margin...

    I just know that things still seem a bit fuzzy to me and that I certainly don't like the idea of skimming 75% off of the donations in exchange for sending 25%...even if that 75% is being "paid for."

  6. Anonymous Anonymous | 5:37 PM |  

    I am so happy to hear someone really delve into the issue of Prolacta's donations to Africa. I started as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa and worked in Africa for 20 years. While I empathize with Jill Youse's zeal, I feel it is highly misplaced. The huge costs of shipping milk would be far better placed in helping African mothers that are HIV negative to donate milk to their sisters. African women have long shared milk with each other and are not as squeamish about it as we are. I personally know how outrageously expensive shipping costs are when a so-called kindly nutraceutical company wanted to donate their almost outdated iron supplements. The cost of shipping these supplements that the nutriceutical company would soon have to scap as outdated far exceeded the costs of purchasing those supplements in the country itself. We need to use our donations wisely to empower our sisters, not help for profit companies put up a smokescreen to hide their profit motive.

  7. Anonymous marisa | 1:10 PM |  

    i read this post last week when i decided to donate milk. i had come to your blog because i knew you'd point me in the right direction. i just had to come back and add a stupid little bit of irony. i can't give milk because . . . i've travelled to africa. it's such a bummer!

  8. Blogger The Lactivist | 1:45 PM |  

    Ok, I hate to laugh at that, but the irony is pretty strong...

    Have you checked out Milk Share? That might be a good option for you...

  9. Blogger Jennifer Pierson | 7:10 PM |  

    Prolacta actually does provide human milk fortifier for critically ill babies. I have ordered it and watched nurses administer this product. And let me tell you how much better I feel when I put a 24 week infant on human milk instead of cows milk based product when he cant get enough calcium and calories etc from IV fluids or his own mothers milk. They are doing post-market research on large groups of babies to determine tolerance and safety. No baby in a study pays for the milk. They also continue to provide milk to babies who have been in studies.

    As far as the profit thing, you are misinformed about profits from donated blood products. Have you ever heard of IVIG? It is extremely expensive, saves lives, donated, and comes from a for profit company. Not to mention some of the "prices" I have seen posted are in fact the cost of the fortifier which is only needed in very small amounts and dispensed in 1/3 ounces and not the priced of regular donated banked milk which is usually around 3 to 4 per ounce depending on the bank.

  10. Anonymous Anonymous | 6:09 PM |  

    I have just qualified to donate milk to prolacta.They do pay for the blood and dna test, breast pump, storage bags, and fed ex shipping. I have decided to donate to them because I delivered twins at 27 weeks gestation and they had a terrible time digesting the fortifier added to my expressed milk. One of the twins had surgery on his stomach twice and they both had terrible reflux. If a 100% human milk fortifier had been available at the time I would have wanted it to be given to my babies. I am still researching prolacta and that is what led me here. I figure I can always stop donating if I decide that they are not the place for me. By the way I used to work in the lab at the hospital and hospitals do buy blood and plasma from blood banks and it is not cheep.

  11. Anonymous Anonymous | 11:31 AM |  

    So what is a lactating mother with extra milk suppose to do? If she wants to donate/sell her milk. Where should you look?

  12. Anonymous Mary Rose Tully | 7:36 PM |  

    Please know that you do *not* need to live near a non-profit donor milk bank to donate to a non-profit bank. All HMBANA member banks in the US will arrange for blood testing in your home community (you will have to go to a medical lab) and will arrange for shipping of your milk. Contact any member bank at www.hmbana.org for more information about individual bank policies.

  13. Blogger DanielleAtkinson | 9:10 PM |  

    Thank you Thank you Thank you for doing the research on this. I felt the same way and just needed another mother to say it.

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