Society

This trend sucks

Why rich Chinese are paying to be breast-fed

CHINA/

A valuable commodity in modern China: pumped breast milk

Good health may be priceless, but some of China’s super-rich are willing to take the mantra to an extreme. Lately, a rather confused minority has been paying top dollar for human breast milk. And even more strangely, some are even choosing to be wet-nursed, says Southern Metropolis Daily.

Why? Human breast milk is widely believed to contain a combination of antibodies, living cells, enzymes, hormones and fatty acids that is persuading the super-rich to class it as the latest superfood. “[Breast milk] is particularly good for people who have just had major surgery. It is the best tonic, even better than bird’s nest [a kind of soup favoured for its restorative capacity],” boasts Li Jun, a manager of Xinxinyu, an agency in Shenzhen that provide wet nurse services for tycoons.

In fact, adult consumption of human milk dates back thousands of years. In the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber there are descriptions of rich women drinking breast milk when in poor health. “In ancient China, only the emperor and the empress could drink human milk throughout their lives,” says Li Ning, a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Engineering. “It was believed to be the height of opulence.”

But the ancient practice now appears to be making a comeback. Southern Metropolis Daily says domestic staff agencies in Shenzhen are offering wet nurses for more than just newborns. They have also been providing services for anyone ready to pay up to Rmb16,000 ($2,607) a month.

It’s not just about the milk, but also how it is delivered. “Clients can choose to consume breast milk directly through breastfeeding… But they can always drink it from a breast pump if they feel uncomfortable,” says Li Jun at Xinxinyu. “Quite a few of our clients hire in-house wet nurses to ensure a supply of fresh breast milk on a daily base,” Lin said, adding that “wet nurses rarely raise objections [to adult suckling] as long as the price is right.”

The news quickly provoked concern on the internet. In an online poll, almost 90% voted against the service, saying that it “violated ethical values”, while only 10% deemed it a “normal business practice”. Others described it as “disguised pornography” or dismissed it as novelty entertainment for China’s super-rich.

“People become perverts when they are too rich and tired of other forms of entertainment,” one weibo user wrote.

“Adults drinking breast milk is not only a sign of moral regression but also an insult to motherhood,” another wrote.

Others questioned whether such services are even legal. Current legislation does not prohibit women from providing wet nursing services to children, says Zhao Mingxin, a professor of law at Shenzhen University School. But if nursing directly from the breast is offered to adults then it can be deemed as an erotic service and thus breaks laws, says Legal Daily.

“There is an essential difference between sucking on a breast and drinking from a pump, as the former largely exceeds the necessity of diet,” advised Guangdong lawyer Mei Chunlai.

In issue 101 WiC described how a Chinese scientist was trying to genetically modify cows to produce ‘human milk’. At the time, many readers thought the article was an April Fools’ Day prank (it wasn’t). But regular readers will recall that China’s track record in traditional dairy is pretty dreadful. In 2008 farmers were revealed to be adulterating their products with melamine to improve profits. The resulting milk powder killed six infants and made 300,000 more ill. Since then additional cases of contamination have often resurfaced.

Many consumers now go to great lengths to buy foreign-made baby formula and bulk-buying by Chinese has cleared shelves around the world, leading retailers and local governments in Hong Kong, the UK and Germany to limit the number of formula canisters that consumers can buy or export. Foreign producer of milk powder account for 60% of the Chinese domestic market.

But foreign formula makers got some unwelcome news last week. China’s economic planning agency the NDRC announced it’s investigating foreign infant milk companies Nestle, Danone, Mead Johnson Nutrition and Abbott Laboratories for possible antitrust violations. The investigation could result in tougher rules for imports into a market set to grow to $25 billion by 2017. The firms could also face fines ranging from 1% to 10% of their annual sales, says Xinhua.

Analysts say the move is part of a broader plan to boost consumption of domestic dairy products. “It is pointing in the same direction of supporting local producers, making it difficult for importers,” says Renee Tai, a Hong Kong-based analyst at regional brokerage UOB Kay Hian.

The People’s Daily says the reason for the investigation is that international brands have frequently raised prices. “From 2008, some foreign milk powder brands have increased their prices by up to 30%, nearly double that of local milk powder brands,” the newspaper claimed.

Facing higher prices for imported milk and quality concerns about domestic supply, the authorities Beijing have even launched a campaign to push more mothers to breastfeed. One reason is that China’s breastfeeding rates are lower than those in other countries. Globally, nearly 40% of infants younger than six months are breastfed. In China that figure is just 28%, according to the Ministry of Health. Rates in India and the US are about 46%, while the UK is among the highest at 84%.

But with some women now offering to wet nurse adults, the campaign seems to have had some unintended consequences…


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