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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials are cautioning new parents about sharing breast milk as a growing number of women are using social networking and other websites to share their milk instead of turning to infant formula.
Health experts have long promoted breast-feeding as the "perfect food" to provide babies with needed nutrients as well as ward off illness, but the Food and Drug Administration is worried about the practice.
In a statement on Tuesday, the agency urged parents not to casually use breast milk from other, unscreened mothers because of the risk of disease or contamination from bacteria, drugs or chemicals.
"FDA recommends against feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet," the agency wrote. Instead, parents should talk to their doctors and use breast milk from special human milk banks, it said.
The move comes ahead of a public FDA meeting on Monday to discuss breast milk donations and banking. The agency is poised to release documents related to the meeting on Thursday.
It also follows some concern in recent years with the $2.8 billion infant formula market that has seen controversy over chemicals in can linings as well as various recalls.
A small network of self-regulated breast milk banks offer screened milk. But experts say they simply do not have enough milk to serve other mothers unable to breast-feed their babies.
Some women have turned to other women. Such web-based exchanges have spiked in recent weeks with the growth of Eats on Feets, a new global exchange that connects women who want to donate milk with women who need it.
Emma Kwasnica, one of two women who helped launch the group globally, said the warning was misguided. "It won't stop us mothers. ... They can't possibly regulate what women do with their bodies and their milk," she said.
Pauline Sakamoto, past president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, said with just 10 banks nationwide, her nonprofit group understands the limits of banked milk, which can cost $3 to $5 an ounce (30 grams).
FDA's meeting could help highlight the need to expand insurance coverage as well as the number of actual banks, which are subsidized in most other countries, she said.
Rebekah Kelly, a 29-year-old new mother, had trouble nursing when her daughter was born in September.
Her baby quickly lost weight and hospital officials urged formula. But Kelly's sister, also a new mother, offered some of her own milk. Soon, Kelly herself began pumping and found herself with hundreds of extra ounces of milk in her freezer.
"I started thinking that I wanted to help somebody else," she said. The Virginia mother turned to Facebook, found Eats on Feets, and gave her excess to a North Carolina mother who drove more than 3 hours to pick it up.
Larry Grummer-Strawn, a top nutrition expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said most banks barely have enough milk to serve very low weight babies such as preemies.
"There's not enough supply right now, so they're focused on where there's the most need," he said.
Eats on Feets' Kwasnica said those who need milk can't wait for better banks and that other women who pump too much can help: "Breast milk is not a scarce commodity. It's a free-flowing resource, and we are dumping it down the drain."
Editing by Mohammad Zargham