Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Repugnant Milk?

The Courier Mail reports on the 'black' market for breast-milk:
A BLACK market in breast milk has developed in Australia as families desperate to feed their babies the natural elixir are being charged up to $1000 a litre on the internet.

One mother contacted the Gold Coast based Mother's Milk Bank to ask what the real "going rate" was for breast milk after online sharks demanded the extortionate amount when she placed a web advert seeking human milk.

Mother's Milk Bank director Marea Ryan told her that the not-for-profit bank sold milk for $50 for 1.2 litres.
The market has developed because of the marketed qualities of breast-milk. So mothers who have difficulty breast-feeding still have incentives to procure breast-milk elsewhere.

If I understand the article correctly, there are concerns that an unregulated market may give rise to health issues of the quality of milk is poor. That is, it should be regulated as a food. However, it appears to be treated as a bodily fluid and so regulated or open markets with transparent standards are shut down.

The Government clearly can't have it both ways here. If it believes breast-milk is important then ensuring quality supply is available widely is surely a good thing. On the other hand, there may be social norms at work preventing such markets by treating all sale of bodily fluids as a repugnant transaction.

My guess is that they are against the idea because of concerns that some mothers might opt to purchase breast-milk rather than produce it themselves. As an economist, that idea does not trouble me although I think that some regulations might be in order to ensure that mothers do not supply milk onto the market in ways that cause them to deny their own children that milk. Nonetheless, this is not an area where Governments should be dismissive of market opportunities.