The sale and export of breast milk from Cambodian mothers to anywhere outside the country, including the U.S., has been officially banned, the government announced in a statement released on Tuesday.
“Even though Cambodia is very poor, she doesn’t sell mothers’ breast milk,” said a statement from the Council of Ministers, signed by Ngor Hong Ly, a secretary of state, and released with an endorsement from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
It says the government has “decided to take measures immediately to ban any purchases and export of breast milk from Cambodia.”
Posted to the Health Ministry’s Facebook page, the statement names the U.S.-based company, Ambrosia Milk, which until recently had been recruiting Cambodian mothers to sell their breast milk to customers in the U.S.
The company—known locally as Khun Meada, which means “gratitude of mothers” in Khmer—was run out of a slum on the outskirts of Phnom Penh before closing on March 11 after the government ordered a temporary halt on breast milk exports, ostensibly amid concerns about possible detrimental effects to the health of Cambodian babies.
A number of women in Stung Meanchey district had been selling their breast milk to Ambrosia Milk since 2015—though the trade was only brought to international attention with the publication of an article on the website Broadly earlier this month.
The local manager of Khun Meada, Kong Pheakdey, on Tuesday said that she had been told by Bronzson Woods, Ambrosia’s founder and CEO, that the company did not intend to reopen in Cambodia.
Mr. Woods and co-founder Ryan Newell did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Pheakdey said the company had shut down because the Finance Ministry’s general department of customs and excise had asked them to obtain an export permit from the Health Ministry, which had refused to issue one.
She said Mr. Woods had “twice processed paperwork to ask for permits” from the Health Ministry before the company closed. The ministry, she said, informed the company that “there is no such thing” as a breast milk business in the country.
Ms. Pheakdey defended the ethics of the business, saying the health of the Cambodian women selling their milk was monitored monthly and drug screening tests were carried out at the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital.
Ms. Pheakdey said she was worried about the women who lost their income due to the ban.
“The company helped a lot of women and provided jobs for them,” she said. “If she works for factories, she works long hours. Here she just comes for about half an hour to an hour, then she can go back home.”
Yorn Thina, 40, a seamstress with five children, including a baby, estimated that she was the 40th woman to sign up when she started selling milk nine months ago. The main breadwinner for her family, she said she had earned up to $120 for a six-day working week, but was now jobless.
“I have no money,” she said. “I might work as a motorbike-taxi driver.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, along with officials at the Health Ministry, could not be reached on Tuesday.
Cambodia joins just a few countries with an outright ban on the sale of exported breast milk.
China classifies breast milk as a special food or beverage that cannot be processed or sold. However, there is a thriving black market. In Australia, it is also technically illegal to trade in breast milk, which is considered a human body part, but it is openly sold online.
In the U.S., the market for “liquid gold,” as breast milk is known, is massive, with demand outstripping supply. While it is legal, the Food and Drug Administration has warned about the risks of using milk that, in the case of internet shoppers, may not have been screened or treated. The French and U.K. governments have issued similar warnings.
Unicef has also expressed concern about the possible exploitation of women for profit and commercial purposes, particularly in developing countries where they say the trade could lead mothers to sell their milk instead of feeding their babies properly.
Meas Bunly, a Unicef communication specialist, said in an email on Tuesday that “Unicef supports the Government’s action to ban the commercialisation of Cambodia breast milk for overseas use.”