Human breast milk is not reproducible, but can be collected from donors. Breast milk is full of active proteins and other complex biomolecules. As a scientist who struggles to purify stable, soluble, biologically active proteins (or even small fragments of them), I know how difficult and expensive it is to do this. Figuring out how to produce even one milligram of one protein that is still folded (shaped properly) and active (able to work like a tiny machine) can take a year.
The protein content listed on a formula label refers to what's left of once-active proteins that are now unfolded, inactive, and simply a source of amino acids. Formula provides protein as well as carbohydrate and fat for food calories, it's cheap and easy to produce, and it's nothing like breast milk.
Breast milk actually evolved as part of the immune system, not as a method for feeding. It started as an antimicrobial fluid, not a food. This ancestral substance was composed primarily of complex immune-related proteins and biomolecules and acted then as it does today - as a system for properly establishing the immune system of a newborn under the direct guidance of the parental immune system. Mammals now produce breastmilk that also contains lactose and lipids, which provide sustenance (a later evolutionary flourish).
Infant formula is not synthetic breastmilk. Creating synthetic breastmilk would be a feat comparable to making synthetic blood. Anyone who considers the problem will quickly realize that, like blood, there is only one way to get breast milk - from a donor.
Since breast milk is such a precious, useful substance I wasn't surprised to learn that, like Telacris and CSL Behring, companies that make therapeutics from blood plasma, another company has figured out what a commerical goldmine donor breast milk - processed and sold as a biotherapeutic - could be.
Enter Prolacta, a company that has spent an enormous amount of time and effort researching human breastmilk - what's in it, why it's medically important, how it can be effectively collected, safety checked, pasteurized, processed, and sold at a profit.
The work Prolacta does is good for breastfeeding science, and for the image of breast milk. Prolacta supports an excellent charity (the IMBP). It also helps a lot of severely premature babies, because they sell a breast milk version of human milk fortifier (HMF) - an additive that boosts the calories in milk fed to those babies in the NICU. Unfortunately, the way they get the milk is pretty devious.
Part 2. The Prolacta/IMBP Controversy Recap (this story broke in 2007) - preview this Lactivist article
Part 3. How much breastmilk donated for Haiti will actaully make it to Haiti?
Part 4. Paying moms for breastmilk (shudder) - could there be a silver lining?