Moms from across Metro Vancouver who have been donating their breast milk are up in arms after a Coquitlam woman allegedly lied about her children needing it, then selling the donated milk for thousands of dollars.
Jodi Neibert — a milk donor and advocate for the Facebook group and non-profit Human Milk 4 Human Babies British Columbia — was one of dozens of women who expressed outrage on the page after a fellow mom noticed the Coquitlam woman from whom she bought milk was looking for donations.
The Tri-City News also spoke to three other women who had similar experiences.
“I’m not going to be giving out my bodily fluids to just a stranger to make money off of it,” Neibert told The Tri-City News. “It’s really creepy.”
Often run out of hospitals, human milk banks operate in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary, according to Health Canada. But those banks' limited supply means milk often gets prioritized to high-risk newborns.
When Neibert initially struggled to breastfeed her first son, she looked to the milk bank at B.C. Women’s Hospital and Health Centre but was turned off by the exorbitant prices and the fact the milk was pasteurized.
Like many other mothers dedicated to breastfeeding but unable to produce enough milk, Neibert then turned to private individuals and online groups to find a "milky match," as Human Milk 4 Human Babies puts it.
Soon, Neibert and her son got the hang of breastfeeding and she eventually produced more milk than he could consume. But the experience of being without milk stuck with her.
“I started to understand the struggle and how frightening it was to be in that position,” she said.
Three years later, she was a regular milk donor, pumping and handing out whatever she didn’t need for her own children.
Just before Christmas last year, Neibert got a message from a mother looking for milk. Thinking it would be a nice gesture before the holidays, she gave the woman 650 ounces on her doorstep — a hefty volume, she said.
Then, a few days ago, she saw the message posted to the milk donor Facebook group: Neibert and dozens of other mothers had allegedly been tricked by the same woman to think their donations were going to a mother in need.
Milk donor mothers stated flooding the post with their own experiences donating to the Coquitlam woman — in one example, a mom-turned-amateur sleuth found an ad on onlythebreast.com in which the Coquitlam woman wrote that she has more than 1,300 oz. of milk for sale at $2 per ounce.
The Tri-City News called and left messages for the woman alleged to have sold donated breast milk but didn’t receive a reply by the time of publication.
Coquitlam RCMP said it received a complaint about the woman but that the evidence did not meet the threshold for a criminal charge. (The Tri-City News decided not to publish her name because she has not been charged.)
“Once you donate or give away an item to an individual, you generally give up the right to say what happens to that item,” said Cpl. Michael McLaughlin in an email.
Since then, at least one Tri-City donor told The Tri-City News she was considering pursuing legal action against the woman for civil fraud.
This controversy has had a devastating effect on the digital collective of milk-donating mothers, said Neibert. Over the last few days, she said, several women have left the Facebook group, no longer wishing to donate their milk.
“It’s sad because a lot of the moms do produce a lot,” said Neibert. “Now they’ve been soured by this experience.”
The episode has also laid bare the distance and financial cost some mothers will endure to get breast milk for their babies.
“There’s a lot of desperate moms out there on mat leave, not making much money at all,” said Neibert.
That cost was evident in a series of text messages, shared with The Tri-City News, in which the mother who blew the whistle on the Coquitlam woman in question tried to get a lower price. In one message, the whistleblower asks the Coquitlam woman to lower the price to 50 cents per ounce, saying she and her husband desperately need it.
“No sorry 1/oz,” replies the Coquitlam woman, before accepting $100 up front and another $100 the week after.
“That’s pretty low when you’re not even paying for it,” Neibert said.
While many women have turned to what looks to be an emerging grey market to nourish their babies, Health Canada recommends against accepting breast milk from private donors.
Breast milk is considered food under Canadian law and, like other food, it can spoil due to poor refrigeration or be tainted with bacteria like E. coli and salmonella due to poor hygiene and unsanitary handling. Human milk may also carry other microbial hazards, according to Health Canada, including HIV, and hepatitis B and C.
But Neibert said those risks can be minimized by building trust with a donor and sharing a donor mother’s medical information, often gathered during pregnancy.