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A recent article from the CDC about a baby contracting Group B Strep (GBS) infection linking the infection to the mother’s placenta capsules has caused quite a stir…and it should! After fielding many calls and messages about the safety of the process, I wanted to write a blog and clear up what may have gone wrong with the “CDC placenta” and how to keep your own placenta encapsulation process safe.

Problem #1–Transport

The first weak point I see in the processing of the CDC placenta is that the encapsulator picked it up from the hospital and transported it to her own home for processing. We want to believe the best in people, and I want to believe that the encapsulator took the placenta, on ice, straight to her home, where she then sanitized her kitchen counters for that placenta, worked with only that placenta, and completed the process safely. The reality is–we don’t know! Did the encapsulator pick up the placenta, swing by the grocery store, and then the mall, and then her kids’ soccer practice, and then go out for ice cream? There are all kinds of stories of irresponsible placenta transport on the internet, including a famous placenta that was stored in a breakroom fridge (again, I want to believe that no one would mess with a placenta, but who’s to say that a curious cathy wouldn’t open the container and peek?!). 

Solution #1–DIY Transport

We require our clients to have a trusted representative (partner/spouse, parent, friend) transport their placenta from the hospital to their own home and place it in their own refrigerator. This gives you a degree of confidence that the placenta was maintained at a safe temperature at all times. Plus it offers an added layer of protection against your placenta being mixed up with anyone else’s when the chain of custody of the placenta is limited to your trusted family member or friend (assuming, of course, that they aren’t transporting anyone else’s placenta at the same time–which is probably a safe bet!). 

Problem #2–Temperature

The second red flag in the CDC placenta article is that the encapsulator’s website states that they clean, slice, and then dehydrate at temperatures between 115-160 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a broad range of temperatures, and the USDA website states that heated foods must be kept at 140 degrees or higher to avoid rampant bacteria breeding! There’s a popular method of encapsulation known as “raw” encapsulation, taken from the raw foods philosophy of eating. In it’s pure form, the placenta is either not heated at all (often made into smoothies) or not heated above 115 during dehydration (although many encapsulators who advertise “raw” preparation heat in a safe zone for a certain amount of time).

Solution #2–Steam & Heat!

The fact is, most bacteria is pretty simple to kill…heat it up past 140 degrees and the hydrogen bonds in the proteins break. It’s sort of like when you break down a cardboard box–you separate the glued flaps and the box collapses. All the elements are there, but you no longer have a usable box. The same is true of bacteria when its proteins are denatured–it becomes useless/harmless. For this reason, we insist on preparing placentas according to a Traditional Chinese Medicine-inspired method. We steam our clients’ placentas before dehydrating them, adding an extra layer of protection against common bacteria, and we dehydrate at 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 24 hours. 

Problem #3–Storage

The final obvious weak point in the CDC article is the storage of the placenta capsules at room temperature. While this wouldn’t cause the capsules to suddenly be infected with GBS absent the other issues, it would potentially allow for moisture to enter the capsules, providing a warm, damp breeding ground for any amount of bacteria that survived the encapsulation process.

Solution #3–So simple

While no bacteria SHOULD survive the encapsulation process, storing capsules in a refrigerator (or freezer if long-term) offers another layer of protection against one bacterium turning into a million. 

Final Thoughts

We recognize that the potential of placenta capsules causing infection in a client or their baby is a scary prospect. We see how our clients benefit from our safe, effective methods of preparation, and we hope for eventual regulation and oversight of our profession so that all encapsulators may hold themselves to the same high standards. 

When people find out that I encapsulate placentas for a living, most of them have two reactions. First, “EWWW!” and then, “Why?” And sometimes when an article like this CDC thing comes out and rocks my community, I ask myself the same thing. Placenta encapsulation requires a lot of expensive equipment, a lot of driving around to offer it in our clients’ homes, a lot of hours spent with my hands in a tub of bleach to maintain the safety of my equipment, a lot of preparation to make sure our disposable items are packaged safely for each individual client, and a lot of time sharing our process with concerned doctors and midwives and hospital representatives.

But every time a client messages me something like, “you know, I was feeling really sad and overwhelmed all of a sudden this afternoon, and then I realized that I had forgotten to take my morning placenta capsules! These things really DO make a difference!” I am reminded of my why–because I will do anything in my power to help new parents make the early months with a newborn easier, better, more bonded, happier, and more memorable.

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About kherzel

Kate Herzel is the co-owner of Heartland Doulas alongside Stacy Ash, and together with their combined 20 years of experience and 7 doulas, they help people have really amazing birth and postpartum experiences. In her spare time, Kate enjoys cooking with her kids, brewing beer with her husband, and entertaining for her friends.