THREE chocolate factory workers have been sacked after they printed a rude message on thousands of Aero bars.

The workers at Nestle Rowntree's York factory altered the sweet wrappers so a swear word appeared where the best before date and code should be.

The offending messages were spotted by bosses before any of them left the factory.

A Nestl source said the three were among nine York production staff originally suspended over the incident, in which the words "S*** bar" appeared where a best before date and code would normally be printed.

They were sacked on Monday morning.

The GMB union said it would represent the employees in an appeal against their dismissal.

A company source said: "Three people were dismissed over the affair. It is unfortunate, but we cannot have people tampering with food safety."

The wrappers come to the factory pre-printed, but the best before date and a code are printed on in York. About 20 pallets of Aeros were affected, and it is not known if they were destroyed.

A Nestl spokeswoman said the company could not comment because sensitive personnel matters were involved.

GMB official John Kirk said the union would represent the three in an appeal against dismissal.

The appeal will be part of an internal company process.

Figures released yesterday by Nestl for the first three months of the year revealed its Europe zone performed poorly compared to other world divisions because of a "difficult retail environment".

But Nestl Rowntree managing director Chris White said things were going according to plan at York's Wigginton Road plant.

He said: "We have had a very good first quarter."

Overall, Nestl performed well, with global sales up 5.1 per cent.

Nestl chief executive Peter Brabeck said: "The good start into 2004 should allow us to attain our objectives for the year, both in terms of growth as well as profitability."