PHNOM PENH • The United Nations arm protecting children, Unicef, has condemned a company selling breast milk from "vulnerable and poor" Cambodian mothers to Americans, hitting out at the commercialisation of nutrients needed by babies inside the kingdom.
The issue emerged this week after Cambodia said it had halted exports from Utah-based company Ambrosia Labs, which claims to be the first of its kind to bank human breast milk sourced from overseas and export it into the United States.
The firm's customers are American mothers who want to supplement their babies' diets or cannot supply enough of their own milk.
The milk is pumped in Cambodia and frozen and shipped to the US, where it is pasteurised and sold by the company for US$20 (S$28) for each 147ml pack - roughly the volume of half a can of Coke.
Those donating their breast milk hailed from poor communities in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, where the scheme helped families to top up meagre incomes.
What Ambrosia Labs charges in US dollars for each 147ml pack - about half a Coke can - of breast milk.
Approximately what a Cambodian mother earns (in US dollars) a day for selling her breast milk to the company.
Cambodia's customs department said on Monday that it had stopped exports temporarily "because the product comes from a human organ", adding the government planned to hold talks on whether to let the trade continue.
Unicef said yesterday that excess breast milk should remain in Cambodia, one of South-east Asia's poorest countries, where many babies lack good nutrients.
"Breast milk banks should never be operated by exploiting vulnerable and poor women for profit and commercial purposes," Ms Iman Morooka, the agency spokesman in Cambodia, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"Breast milk could be considered as human tissue, the same as blood, and as such its commercialisation should be banned."
Malnutrition "remains a threat to children's well-being in Cambodia, and proper breastfeeding is one of the key factors contributing to a child's good health and nutrition", she added.
Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bunheng declined to comment on the issue when contacted by AFP yesterday.
Ambrosia Labs did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But in an interview with a Cambodia-based reporter published on Vice.com last week, co-founder Bronzson Woods defended the business. He also said he hit upon the idea while working in the country as a Mormon missionary.
The firm has said that its model encouraged Cambodian women to continue breastfeeding, earned them much-needed income and helped to plug milk bank shortages in the US.
AFP visited the office of Ambrosia Labs last week in Stung Meanchey, a poor suburb of Phnom Penh. The office - labelled Khun Meada, or "mother's gratitude" - was closed and women who sold their milk said that they had been told operations were suspended.
Ms Chea Sam, 30, told AFP during an interview last week that she had been selling her breast milk for the last three months following the birth of her son. She said she earned between US$7.50 and US$10 a day and she knew at least 20 other mothers doing the same.
In videos posted on the Facebook page of Khun Meada, several mothers appealed to the government to let them sell their milk to the company.