Bangkok: Cambodian authorities have permanently banned the sale and export of human breast milk after suspending exports from a US company that has been collecting it from impoverished mothers for more than two years.
The ban has put the spotlight on a global trade in breast milk to other mothers, bodybuilders, cancer patients and breast-milk fetishists.
Nineteen-year-old Cambodian mother Chek Srey Toy made $US10 a day selling her breast milk, using the money to help support her one-year-old daughter.
"I would give some of my breast milk to my daughter and the rest to the company to sell," she told the Phnom Penh Post.
"I am very sorry that they closed," she said, referring to Ambrosia Labs Ltd, a company headed by former Mormon missionary Bronzson Woods.
"I am very poor and don't know what to do," Chek Srey said.
Cambodian women have been earning between $US7 and $US10 ($9 to $13) a day for selling their milk to the company.
Ambrosia Labs issued a statement saying "we believe in empowering the mothers of Cambodia with a way to make money while nurturing their families, as well as others, through the donation of their excess milk".
"We work hard to set and monitor guidelines to ensure that we are not taking milk out of infants' mouths," the company said, adding it does not accept milk from mothers of infants younger than six months.
But Ing Kantha Phavi, Cambodia's Minister of Women's Affairs, said the sale of breast milk could stunt children's growth and development and thwart the government's efforts to promote breastfeeding among new mothers.
The ban has been welcomed by the United Nations' children's agency, UNICEF, in a country where breastfeeding has been in decline.
"Breast milk could be considered as human tissue, the same as blood, and as such, its commercialisation in Cambodia should not be supported," the agency said.
Cambodian welfare groups also welcomed the ban.
"Even if women agree to do it voluntarily, they often have no other choices and face economic pressure," said Ros Sopheap, the director of the women's rights group Gender and Development for Cambodia.
Online companies like US-based Only The Breast offers what it calls a "discreet classified system" for customers to buy, sell or donate breast milk.
The site claims mothers all around the world are "crying out for a place to buy and sell breast milk".
It quotes a mother called Dawn saying "I am looking to sell my breast milk. I have found some sites where you can list it but it looks like men buy up most of the milk to drink".
The sale of breast milk is not regulated in the US but health authorities there have warned against feeding babies with milk acquired from individuals or through the internet.
In Australia it is illegal to sell or buy body parts or products, including breast milk.
But there are reports of an underground market that has sprung up due to a lack of milk banks endorsed by hospitals.
In 2016 the British Medical Journal quoted research showing breast milk sold on the internet was not generally screened for diseases and contamination, and could be adulterated with water and cow's milk and tainted with high levels of bacteria.
Cambodia's ban follows a crackdown late last year on commercial surrogacy, where hundreds of impoverished mothers were recruited to carry babies for foreigners, including about 70 Australian couples.
Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles is in jail awaiting trial on charges relating to her allegedly running a surrogacy clinic in Phnom Penh.
More than 50 surrogacy operators in Cambodia were forced to close their operations.