The announcement that higher than normal levels of mercury have been found in baby food will almost certainly damage the industry in the short term. Concerns over contaminants – particularly ones that affect children – have become stronger following recent food scares. However, any manufacturer that can win consumers’ trust will be in a position to benefit from parental protective instincts.

The recent discovery of higher than expected levels of mercury in baby food will cause concern to new and expectant mothers. Although the Committee on Toxicity in Foods has yet to make an official announcement, warnings have already been issued regarding consumption of fish – particularly shark, swordfish and most importantly tuna.

The warning over mercury content in fish was aimed at pregnant women as mercury can affect babies in the womb. However, the Committee will also have to decide on a safe level for consumption by babies.

Consumer fears over contaminants in food have risen considerably in recent years. Scares such as BSE have raised consumers’ awareness of the danger of animals having a contaminated food supply, while the GM debate has boosted anxiety about the presence of pesticides or other foreign materials in food.

Not all consumers are equally driven by fear of the potential dangers of their food. For the most part, such concerns are the province of better off consumers – only they can afford to worry about matters other than price and convenience. However, a scare that affects new and unborn babies will have a much more widespread impact on consumers as a new baby’s safety will override issues of cost for most consumers.

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Manufacturers of baby foods face a great risk: even if their specific product has not been found to contain mercury, consumers are notoriously prone to tar all similar products with the same broad brush when it comes to matters of product safety. On the other hand, any manufacturer of baby food that can provide consumers with cast iron assurances of safety is in a good position to capitalise on others’ weaknesses.

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