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A firestorm has erupted among breast-feeding activists in Detroit who say that an Oregon-based human milk corporation is targeting and exploiting the city's low-income African-American mothers for their breast milk.

Led by the Detroit-based Black Mothers' Breast Feeding Association, activists are collecting signatures and planning a news conference Tuesday to protest the work of Medolac Laboratories, a public benefit corporation.

The company recently announced a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to increase and prolong breast-feeding among African-American women by forming partnerships to support the Mothers Milk Cooperative, a donor milk bank owned by its members.

The cooperative has 1,000 members in 47 states and is working to enroll more, paying nursing mothers who have excess breast milk $1 an ounce.

The milk is rigorously tested before it is sold for $4 an ounce to hospitals for use in neonatal intensive care units — where care is given to infants born too early, according to Medolac. Studies show breast milk given to premature infants help them thrive and fight off infections, sepsis and death, but the supply is a fraction of the demand.

Kiddada Green, founding director of the Black Mothers' Breast Feeding Association, is concerned the partnerships will target urban areas, including Detroit, where officials from the Tech Town business incubator have been working to support the endeavor.

Green said their concerns include a lack of evidence that paying mothers for their breast milk will increase the longevity of their breast-feeding, whether the milk will be used for premature infants struggling for survival in Detroit hospitals and more. African-American mothers have low breast-feeding rates.

"They are asserting that this is a social movement," said Green. "But I think it's exploitation. It's profit-driven."

But officials from Medolac and the Mothers Milk Cooperative say nothing could be further from the truth.

"We would never take milk from a poor woman who didn't have enough for their own babies," said Elena Medo, chairwoman and CEO of Medolac Laboratories.

Many mothers are using the money to give them more options, to stay at home longer with their child or go back to school or pay off debts or allowing their spouse to be the primary breadwinner, according to Medolac. Last year, the company paid more than $1 million to members of the Mothers Milk Cooperatives, with an average of about $600 to $800 month.

Since the co-op only started in 2012, no profits have been made, said Adrianne Weir, CEO of the Mother's Milk Cooperative. But at the end of the year, any proceeds will be split among the members.

Most of the co-op's members are from Michigan, where it was incorporated. The co-op was incorporated in Michigan because it is the only state with a law that allows a co-op to become global and still remain one entity, said Doug Hawkins, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Medolac Laboratories.

Additionally, the co-op's formation got technical assistance from Michigan State University.

But Danielle Atkinson, founding director of Mothering Justice, a Royal Oak group working to advance the financial stability of mothers, said there is an infant mortality problem in Detroit and a host of other issues that activists don't want to see exacerbated by Medolac's campaign.

"If they are coming into this community," Atkinson said, "they need to be held accountable for what the impact is."

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com

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