In February, radical Covent Garden ice-cream parlour, the Icecreamists, rapidly became famous for the creation of breastmilk ice-cream, sold for a staggering £14.99 a scoop (1) before it was seized by Westminster Council, who feared it may not be "fit for human consumption"(2).
Reactions to the breastmilk ice-cream have been interesting, to say the very least. Some have criticised the Icecreamists for using breastmilk as a 'cheap' publicity stunt; others have taken issue with the way in which the breastmilk ice-cream was publicised.
The publicity photos: why does breastmilk ice-cream need to be accompanied by Calpol, Bonjela and a bottle?
Whilst I cannot pretend to know what the Icecreamists were actually trying to achieve through a publicity photo such as this, the image does make an interesting and clever point, regardless of whether this stroke of genius was intentional or not.
Victoria Hiley, the donor who supplied the breastmilk for the ice-cream, described her experience as a "burlesque adventure"(3). And, in publicising their breastmilk ice-cream, the Icecreamists have indeed served us up a daringly burlesque image, beautifully censuring society's hypocrisy regarding human breastmilk.
Breastfeeding is an emotive, political issue: there are potentially serious risks involved in not breastfeeding, but the government provides shockingly little protection to mothers, infants and its healthcare system from aggressive advertising from the infant feeding industry. For babies, breastmilk is a matter of life and death: "Every day, more than 4,000 babies die because they're not breastfed. That's not conjecture, it's UNICEF fact." (4) Yet here, breastfeeding is trivialised, frivolously transformed into ice-cream, apparently in the name of pushing the boundaries of acceptability. And the Icecreamists push the boundaries further still: pharmaceutical medications and feeding bottles are treated in a coarsely trivial manner, presented as mere condiments on a tray. The overall effect borders on the grotesque, which upon reflection, is quite brilliant (even if it was just accidental).
My point is that everybody seems to have been so distracted with whether the idea of breastmilk ice-cream is attractive or repulsive that all but the most informed amongst us have rather dismissed its accompaniments.
The bottle in the photo is manufactured by a company which is renowned for breaking the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk substitutes and subsequent World Health Alliance (WHA) resolutions. Yes, feeding bottles and teats do in fact fall within the scope of the WHO Code (5). The WHO states that "Given the special vulnerability of infants and the risks involved in inappropriate feeding practices, usual marketing practices are therefore unsuitable for these products"(6). It explains that "feeding bottles [...] carry a high risk of contamination that can lead to life-threatening infections in young infants"(6). Furthermore, the inappropriate use of feeding bottles can adversely affect a mother's breastmilk supply, confuse the baby and lead to breast refusal(see 7), which can potentially jeopardise a breastfeeding relationship and expose the infant to the risks associated with not breastfeeding. Yet has any of the media coverage raised an issue with the feeding bottle?
A further accompaniment to the breastmilk ice-cream is Calpol. "Voted best health product by readers of Mother & Baby magazine four years running"(8), and with sales of "twelve million packets and bottles" each year (8), you may be forgiven for wondering what the issue with Calpol might be. However, Calpol contains "FIVE E-numbers, some of which have been banned in other parts of Europe and the US"(9). For further information about Calpol and its associated risks, read the Analytical Armadillo's article here. Yet, despite media coverage of the potentially harmful effects of Calpol in 2008/9, it managed to escape media attention when placed on a platter next to breastmilk ice-cream.
Also accompanying the breastmilk ice-cream is Bonjela. Commonly used on teething babies, Bonjela is another over-the-counter medicine which has received fairly recent media attention. Some forms of Bonjela are unsuitable for children under 16 because they contain a substance called choline salicylate, which carries a risk of Reye's Syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease of the brain and liver(10). Bonjela teething gel, which is aimed at children over 2 months old, does not contain choline salicylate, but it does contain Lidocaine hydrochloride and Cetalkonium chloride. I wonder how many people spotted that the breastmilk ice-cream is served with the unsuitable adult version? The media missed that too.
So, take the burlesque image of the breastmilk ice-cream, served with a bottle, Calpol and Bonjela. The overall concept is both attractive and repulsive: it is practically an invitation to choose the item you find most repulsive. The most informed amongst us would probably choose the feeding bottle, Calpol or Bonjela. Yet of course it is the least offensive, most normal item that causes international outcry: the breastmilk, which is "confiscated as a biohazard and described as "nausea inducing" by Lady Gaga"(3). By the way, Westminster Council, that was the wrong answer...
The breastmilk itself is nothing other than normal. This normal food contains myriad beneficial ingredients, including vitamins, fats, antibodies, minerals, stem cells, antiviral and antibacterial components, human growth factors and "about a hundred constituents that cannot be replicated in formula" (11). Breastmilk is not only completely safe and suitable - but actually specifically designed - for human consumption. Furthermore, the donor providing breastmilk for the ice-cream "
And so to raising a satirical eyebrow to society's hypocrisy over human breast milk:
Breastmilk is hailed as "liquid gold". The slogan used to promote breastfeeding proclaims "breast is best," yet paradoxically it is revolting, icky, "nausea-inducing", a bio-hazard, "unfit for human consumption". At the same time, the bottle, the Calpol and the Bonjela all escaped media attention because they are accepted as normal in our society. The Icecreamists have now created an infant formula ice-cream. I'd like to believe it's because the world is still reeling from the brief phenomenon that was breastmilk ice-cream, but I can't help but note that this new ice-cream hasn't provoked quite the same reaction.
The Icecreamists tweet about their new 'formula' ice-cream, which has had disappointingly little impact in the wake of Baby Gaga.
Last updated: 08/03/2011
(1) Williams, Z (2011) Breastmilk ice-cream: the taste test in the Guardian 27/2/11
(2) BBC (2011) Baby Gaga breast milk ice-cream seized for safety tests BBC News London
(3) Hiley, V (2011) Lady Gaga and my breast milk burlesque in the Guardian 7/3/11
(4) Baby Milk Action (2004) Your Questions Answered in www.babymilkaction.org
(5) World Health Organisation (2008) The International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes Frequently Asked Questions, p1
(6) World Health Organisation (2008) The International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes Frequently Asked Questions, p4
(7) Australian Breastfeeding Association (2005) Breast Refusal
(8) Crompton, S (2009) Is Calpol bad for children? in The Times 24/1/09
(9) Thomas, C (2010) Calpol - It's paracetamol Jim, but not as we know it! in Analytical Armadillo 11/10/10
(10) Teething Babies.co.uk (2010) New Advice on Teething Products www.teething-babies.co.uk
(11) Thomas, C (2010) Ask the Armadillo - what's in breastmilk? in Analytical Armadillo