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Detroit groups question pitch for breast milk

Karen Bouffard and Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Organizations protective of Detroit’s mothers unleashed a firestorm of questions Tuesday for a company that wants to pay moms for their breast milk.

Oregon-based Medolac Laboratories processes breast milk and markets it to hospitals to feed to premature infants. Led by the Detroit-based Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, a coalition of organizations lashed out Tuesday against the company.

“My concern with this plan is the targeting of low-income black women,” said Kiddada Green, executive director of the Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association.

In a city with the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, “it reeks of exploitation,” she added.

The company denied Tuesday it is trying to recruit Detroit women, saying women get involved by word of mouth. Medolac processes and markets milk collected from members of the Mother’s Milk Cooperative, who get paid a dollar per ounce with the potential to earn more if the cooperative turns a profit.

The cooperative has 1,000 members in 47 states. Last year, members received about $1 million, an average of about $600 to $800 month.

The venture was launched on Mother’s Day 2013 by Elena Medo, chairwoman and CEO of Medolac Laboratories in the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, and her daughter, Adrianne Weir, who founded the Mother’s Milk Cooperative. Medolac is a “public benefit corporation” with the goal of boosting the supply of breast milk available to premature infants, Weir said Tuesday.

The cooperative has yet to turn a profit — but if it does, the mothers will get a share of the proceeds, she said.

“There’s no activity targeting anyone of any race at all,” Weir said. “It’s been misconstrued in a huge way. We only have a couple of donors in Detroit; we have about 50 in Michigan.

“Many of our members report back to us that we are their only source for support out of their entire community of friends and relatives.”

The confusion may stem from the initiative recently becoming part of the Clinton Global Initiatives, an organization founded by former President Bill Clinton to bring communities together to solve intractable social and economic problems.

According to Clinton Global’s website, Medolac’s “Co-op Campaign to increase breastfeeding in urban areas” hopes to increase its donor base by 2,000 “urban, African-American women.” It says the project could inject $6.57 million into urban communities by providing a source of income for breastfeeding women. “Additionally, the commitment will encourage healthy behaviors and extended breastfeeding duration for the target population; a population with historically lower rates of breastfeeding,” the website states.

Craig Minassian, spokesman for Clinton Global Initiatives, said organizations go through a vetting process, but “We’re not really set up to spend a lot of time auditing whether something is the best approach.”

The Oregon, firm said the milk it sells 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. Studies show breast milk given to premature infants helps them thrive and fight off infections, sepsis and death, but the supply is a fraction of the demand.

The company said its commitment is spurred by a 2011 report by U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin that found that “breastfeeding rates for black infants are about 50 percent lower than those for white infants at birth, age six months and age 12 months, even when controlling for the family’s income or educational level.”

Many mothers are using the money to give them more options, to stay at home longer with their children, go back to school, pay off debts or allow their spouse to be the primary breadwinner, according to Medolac.

Medo said about Medolac, “We would never take milk from a poor woman who didn’t have enough for their own babies.”