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McDonald’s says it will begin using chicken free of most antibiotics

CHICAGO – McDonald’s USA said Wednesday it will start using chicken raised without certain antibiotics and sell milk from cows not treated with an artificial growth hormone, its latest overhauls as it tries to appeal to more health-conscious customers.

Starting later this year, McDonald’s U.S. restaurants will sell low-fat milk and fat-free chocolate milk from cows that are not treated with rbST, an artificial growth hormone, the company, which is based outside Chicago, said.

“Our customers want food that they feel great about eating - all the way from the farm to the restaurant - and these moves take a step toward better delivering on those expectations,” McDonald’s U.S. President Mike Andres said.

The announcement comes as McDonald’s executives are meeting with franchisees this week at a so-called U.S. Turnaround Summit in Las Vegas.

McDonald’s is trying to turn around its results under new CEO Steve Easterbrook, who took the helm Sunday. Andres came back to McDonald’s in October to lead the U.S. business.

McDonald’s sales suffered around the world in 2014, including 10 months of sales declines at long-standing U.S. locations. McDonald’s is updating its restaurants and opening fewer of them as it tries to improve its results.

In the United States, McDonald’s began a campaign in 2014 to respond to criticism about the food it serves. Now, it is taking additional steps as the industry tries to appeal to consumers who want foods that are less processed.

McDonald’s said Wednesday that it has been working with farmers for years to reduce the use of antibiotics in its chicken. This week, it issued a four-page Global Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship in Food Animals, following an antibiotics policy it issued in 2003.

“As the body of scientific evidence grows, and scientific consensus emerges, we recognize the importance of continuing to evolve our position on antimicrobial use,” McDonald’s said in the new document.

McDonald’s is following the lead of other restaurant chains such as Chick-fil-A and Chipotle when it comes to beginning to use antibiotic-free chicken. Still, any changes McDonald’s makes can have a massive impact because of the company’s scale. McDonald’s has about 14,000 restaurants in the United States.

McDonald’s said it would only serve chicken raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine. However, farmers who supply its chicken will continue to “responsibly use ionophores, a type of antibiotic not used for humans that helps keep chickens healthy.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council largely applauded McDonald’s move, saying the chain is “setting the bar for the entire fast-food industry.” Still, Jonathan Kaplan, director of the council’s food and agriculture program, said he wants to see the chain ban the use of all medically important antibiotics around the world, not just in the United States.

JPMorgan analyst Ken Goldman, who follows poultry processors, including Tyson, said the absence of antibiotics in chicken production was likely to drive higher production costs as well as slightly better consumer demand for chicken overall, given the perception of better health. Goldman said he does not expect the change to be a big deal for larger vendors to McDonald’s, such as Tyson.

For now, the milk switch doesn’t apply to milk served in coffee.

“While no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows, we understand this is something that is important to our customers,” Marion Gross, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America supply chain, said in a statement.

McDonald’s USA also said it was named this week as a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable on Sustainable Beef. In 2014, McDonald’s said it aimed to develop global criteria for supporting sustainable beef production and to buy some verified sustainable beef by 2016.