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The February 2016 Mars Chocolate Bar Recall – A Case Study from an ISO 9001 perspective

Every Quality Management System (QMS), including those based on ISO 9001, need to have a process for dealing with non-conforming products. It is often important to ensure that this includes a process for how you will deal with non-conforming products that are found by your customer after the product has left your facility. When this includes more than just the one product that the customer has a problem with, such as a batch of parts that could all be affected, this is often called a “recall process.”

It is important to note that the better your recall process works, the better your chance of turning a slightly annoyed customer into a satisfied customer and prevent the loss of customer satisfaction with your product. This is a struggle recently experienced by the Mars Corporation when a piece of plastic was found in a Snickers bar in January 2016. Here is a case study of the recall that came out of this incident.

What are the details of the recall?

On January 8, a customer in Germany complained that they had found a piece of red plastic in their Snickers bar. This would have initiated a non-conforming product action per their ISO 9001 QMS, which would in turn initiate a corrective action. Even though it was determined that this was not harmful to the stomach or intestines, it was a potential concern that plastic might be caught in the throat. The chocolate bar was found to have come from a factory in the Netherlands, and the red plastic was determined to be a plastic pipe cover that was unintentionally ground during the production process to the extent that small pieces of the plastic ended up in the products.

This was determined to have affected chocolate products manufactured in this facility between December 5, 2015, and January 18, 2016. These products would have been shipped to up to 55 countries that are supplied by the Netherlands facility. As a precautionary measure, all products produced during this time, including Mars bars, Snickers, Milky Way Mini, Celebrations, and MiniMix, were recalled on February 23, 2016: four million bars in the Netherlands plus the product from the 55 other countries.

What are some good points about how this recall was handled?

While this is not an extreme health and safety hazard, such as can be found in automotive or airplane recalls, it is still a costly exercise, and is expected to cost around $10 million. This cost alone could deter some companies from performing a recall, preferring to deal with each complaint as it happens; after all, the plastic would not be found in that many chocolate bars. Instead, Mars has chosen to take a proactive approach and have the products returned before more complaints are filed.

While the approach of only dealing with the complaints could be less costly in terms of money, it could have an effect on the reputation of the company and the satisfaction of its customers. It is possible that some customers would not complain to the company, but instead complain to friends and family and cause others to decide against using these products. Especially in our world of social media, such complaints can travel very far and effect the reputation of customers on a very large scale.

Are there any lessons to learn from this recall?

Probably the first lesson is that no company is perfect; if they were, then there would be no need for ISO 9001 to require your QMS to include processes for non-conforming products. It is also important to note that the recall is only one containment step in a corrective action for this non-conformance. Mars employees will still need to find out why the red plastic pipe cover ended up in the grinding process and how to prevent this from occurring again, so more corrective action will be needed using the ISO 9001 QMS process.

Another thing to consider is that the complaint was received on January 8 and the recall issued on February 23, so why such a long time? It is true that the company would have had to identify where the product was made, identify what the red plastic was, determine that the plastic pipe cover was ground in the process and finally, when the plastic cover could have been ground to determine the time frame of the product to be recalled. With a recall, the faster you can determine what is affected, the better.

There is always room to improve your processes!

When something goes wrong, have a plan of what to do

As with any issue that affects customer satisfaction, time is of the essence, and addressing all the product that could be affected is important in an ISO 9001 QMS. The sooner you can determine what is affected, and what needs to be done about it, the more confidence your customers will have in your ability to fix the problem so that they are not affected. Having a plan on how you are going to do recalls if they are needed is critical, because a robust recall process can help prevent losing customer satisfaction. Remember, customer satisfaction is one key reason you implemented a QMS, so losing it through poor planning is not in your best interest.

Why not find out more about the basics of ISO 9001:2015 with this online  ISO 9001:2015 Foundations Course?

Advisera Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar
Mark Hammar is a Certified Manager of Quality / Organizational Excellence through the American Society for Quality and has been a Quality Professional since 1994. Mark has experience in auditing, improving processes, and writing procedures for Quality, Environmental, and Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems, and is certified as a Lead Auditor for ISO 9001, AS9100, and ISO 14001.