'There's a fly in my coffee' - how companies deal with foreign object complaints

'There's a fly in my coffee' - how companies deal with foreign object complaints

Nunus in salads, worms in chocolate and a piece of glass in a can of beans, or whatever, tends to produce a shock horror response, especially now that anyone can post a pic of the offending “foreign object” on social media - outrage is sure to follow.

Coffee in jars
Getty Images, Consumerwatch

Even with the most stringent procedures to avoid foreign object mishaps, bits of metal, glass, stones, and all manner of insects do manage to escape detection and end up in food packs, to be discovered by a horrified consumer.

It makes for a good news story too, and in my early years of consumer journalism, I got terribly excited about foreign object claims.

But here’s the thing:

Bugs on fresh produce are not a disaster - fruit and veggies grow out in fields with snails, frogs, mice, caterpillars and things, and while they may not be your choice of protein, that’s all they are, and they aren’t going to harm you, or make you break out into a rash.

Many a consumer actually plants a foreign object - glass or some kind of bug - into a product and then complains to the manufacturer in the hope of getting compensation. Sad, but true.

Especially when there’s a downturn in the economy and people are under more financial pressure than usual. 

It’s a worldwide phenomenon.

What research says 

A study by Glass Technology Services in the UK 2013 found that 70% of fragments reported by consumers and submitted for analysis originated from items that are commonly found in the home.

Recently, I got emails, just a day apart, from two consumers who claimed to have suffered extreme physical reactions to food contamination.

"Ingrid" wanted my advice regarding, as she put it, “injested (sic) coffee with fly in jar”. "I've been ill for four weeks now," she said. "My throat is infected."

Given that she had attached to her e-mail a photo of the coffee jar with the dead fly lying next to it, I asked how it had managed to infect her throat. She stopped e-mailing me after that.

A second woman wrote to say that her daughter had been complaining of "unbearable pain" in her stomach, the cause being"webs of some sort" at the bottom of a tin of Milo the child has been eating from.

But when the mom called Nestlé's call centre to complain, she was "only" offered a refund of the cost of a tin of Milo, and R20 extra in the form of a voucher to be used at Pick n Pay, she told me, very upset that she wasn't offered a hamper of goodies.

A Nestlé spokesman told me that webbing in a product indicated weevil infestation, which isn’t a thing with Milo. Moths, maybe, never weevils.

As for the allegation that the Milo had made the child sick, Nestlé asked for a doctor's note to confirm this, which is standard practice, and that’s when the woman stopped communicating with the company.

As a result of that Milo case, Nestlé invited me to visit their factory in Estcourt this week. It’s where Milo is made - since 1939, in fact, along with Ricoffy, Nesquik and their Hot Chocolate.

And how’s this for a sad sign of the times.

Whereas the 500g packs of Ricoffy and Milo used to be the biggest sellers, since the beginning of the year when the hard times hit, the big demand is for the 250g and even the tiny 125g packs, as people can only afford to buy smaller amounts.

Below: Wendy Knowler kitting up to enter Nestlé’s beverage plant in Estcourt. 

Wendy Knowler at the Nestlé’s beverage plant in Estcourt.
Dealing with a foreign object complaints

And each tin or plastic jar is turned upside down and blasted with air before filling and then goes through a metal detector or X-ray machine after filling to check for foreign objects.

But that’s not to say that consumer complaints about products are treated with suspicion - a full investigation is undertaken.  I was amazed by the lengths that Nestle - and no doubt other corporates too - go to when faced with a serious foreign object complaint.

When someone complained that they’d found sand in their baby formula Nestle had the sand tested by a lab, which found the sand came from the Western Cape, not Harrismith, where their formula is produced.

Glass allegedly found in their products is sent to a lab in Germany to determine its source.

Obviously companies should treat every foreign object complaint as genuine, collect the offending product from the consumer, and do a full investigation into whether and how the object got into the product, and then go back to them with a detailed report and an indication of what would be done to avoid it happening again. 

But those considering introducing the problem after purchase should know that the companies do have ways and means of figuring out where the object actually came from and when it got into the product.

Luckily for them, the corporates don’t name and shame them on social media. So, I’m pretty sure that small minority will continue to try their luck from time to time.

Just something to think about the next time you see an outraged “look at this disgusting thing I found in my food” post on social media.

Nestlé’s beverage plant in Estcourt.

Wendy Knowler at the Nestlé’s beverage plant in Estcourt.

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