Breast Milk: a potential source of Escherichia coli

“Liquid gold” as known as breast milk is the natural way of providing energy and nutrients to young infants for healthy growth and development. World Heath Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding particularly colostrum (breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy) to new born within the first few hours of birth. Unfortunately, there are mothers with extremely vulnerable hospitalized babies (preterm birth, birth defects) are unable to provide adequate amount of breast milk to support their babies; or there are mothers that generally cannot produce enough breast milk. With the increase of Internet usage and online shopping, people have started to sell breast milk online.



An investigation done by the “BBC Inside Out” program took 12 samples of online bought breast milk around Europe for microbiological tests at Coventry University. The results showed that four of the samples contained pathogenic Escherichia coli, two of samples contained candida and one contained pseudomonas aeruginosa, which lead to death of four infants in neonatal units in Belfast in 2012. Even though the investigation had very small sample size, the test result indicated that online breast milk has the potential of containing pathogenic bacteria. Infants have immature immune system and devoid of natural gut microflora, which make them the most vulnerable population that has the highest risk of being infected by pathogenic bacteria. Small amount of pathogenic bacteria can cause severe illness or death of infants. Thereby, online breast milk from unauthorized websites should be banned to prevent foodborne illness from happening on those fragile babies.


In Europe and other parts of the world, there are many authorized Milk Banks that offers pasteurized breast milk for premature babies or babies recovering from surgeries. To ensure the safety of donor milk, serological screening, medical history and lifestyle are done and checked before receiving donor milk. According to the European Milk Bank Association (EMBA), there are 210 active milk banks around Europe to support infants that need safe breast milk. A study on nutrients and bioactive factors in human milk indicated that heating process like pasteurization does have a certain degree of destruction on the functionality of bioactive protein components. However, it is not worth the risk of feeding infants with unknown source breast milk that is potentially pathogenic.

Despite there are no outbreaks caused by E.coli in online sold breast milk, preventions should be done to avoid such incidence from happening.

The following video shows a clear procedure on how milk bank handle donated breast milk. (Video from the Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast)

Click link to see the video:

Angel Chen